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Bahaalotecha. June 22, 2019

Rabbi Randall Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

Sometimes the Torah surprises us with something that seems so easy and yet it contains a very deep lesson. At the beginning of our Parsha, Aaron is told to go ahead and light the lamp that will burn inside the Mishkan, the central tent of the portable sanctuary that lies in the heart of the Israelite camp.

It seems to be a rather minor point. The tent is dark, so we light a lamp inside so we can see what we are doing. After all, human beings can’t see very well in the dark so having a lamp seems to be necessary for getting all of our work done. The problem is that this tent is the place where God’s spirit is to dwell. Human beings only enter occasionally. The Torah teaches us that the lamp shall burn continually. Why do we need to leave the lights on if we are not working in the sacred space inside the Mishkan?

Clearly the light of the Menorah is for God. Since this tent is the place where God dwells, then the light must be to support the presence of God. Just like we leave an incense offering on the little alter inside the tent, and we leave a meal offering of bread on the table inside the tent, so too we light the lamps as an offering to God. But what does God need with all of these things? Incense and bread are offerings of something we have made with our hands. But light is not ours to make. God makes light. From the very beginning God has been the creator of light. Why would we give a gift to God of something that God already has all God could need?

I read an article this week about how Facebook and Instagram are spoiling all the great nature sites all over the world. From Death Valley, the lowest spot on earth, to Mount Everest, the tallest, there are lines of people waiting for their moment to take out their phone and snap a selfie with the glories of nature. All the people are jostling around so they can get the perfect picture to post for all their friends to see. Very few people stop and sit and become one with the beauty that surrounds them. The only reason such people go to these natural sites is to get the evidence that they were there. The picture of the beauty of nature, with me in it.

This is the kind of culture we live in today. To many people, life is about all the experiences it has to offer but nothing counts unless there is a picture of themselves on the journey. I can’t tell you how tragic it is when someone, in pursuit of the “perfect picture” gets too close to an edge, too close to a wild animal, or too far away in order to return safely. There is a rescue group that retrieves bodies from underwater caves. One rescuer said, “There are always the pictures. Pictures of the divers in parts of the cave that I can see already that they don’t have enough air to get back.” Who knew that narcissism could be so dangerous?

Let me look at another beautiful object in the world. It is a painting that hangs on the wall in my dining room. It is in a room with works of art that are brighter and shinier than this one is. Other artwork in the room is framed and behind glass. This one piece is unframed, painted on the cardboard top of a box. It is, without doubt, one of the most important works of art in my extensive collection. It was painted by my almost two-year-old grandson at his day care center. The teachers filmed him painting. It came to my home as a gift from his parents. You can’t sell it at an auction house for any money at all, but to me it is the most priceless. There may not be so much paint on the box top, but it is entirely covered in love.

On my desk is a toy truck. My children had lots of toy cars and trucks when they were little but this one did not belong to any of them. This truck belonged to a young boy, about three years old, who came each week with his mother for a conversion class. He was so shy he could not even look at me. He would hide behind his mother and pretend that I could not see him. After a while it became a game; I always said hello and offered to shake his hand. And he would cling to his mother’s leg and look away. I never pushed him or criticized him. I waited patiently for months for him to come out of his shell. And then one day after months of hiding, he came out of his shell and shook my hand. He had a shy smile on his face, and I knew that I had just gained entrance into a very exclusive club; I had become a friend. When his mother graduated from the class, he gave me a truck. I still have it on my desk as a token of his appreciation.

Why does God have us light lamps in the Mishkan? Why does God have us keep this Ner Tamid lit at all times? God certainly has more elaborate lamps in the divine collection. God who creates the sun, moon and all the stars hardly needs the light of our paltry candlestick. The Menorah is not about giving God a gift. What is meaningful to God is that we cared enough to light a lamp and invite God into our place. A synagogue is not about being a beautiful home for God. The real gift is that we show up. That we care enough about God to gather to pray and to invite God to join us in this spiritual moment. This time of prayer is not about getting a selfie with Go; it is the affirmation that God loves us and wants to spend the time with us.

Why does God want to spend so much time with us? God has given us the ability, the divine ability to create light. Now God wants us to take that ability, to take that light and share it with others. Just as God shares God’s holy light with us, so too we are told to share our light with others who are somehow still stuck in the dark.  The painting in my dining room shines its light of love every time I look at it. The toy truck on my desk glows with the light of appreciation that shines as brightly today as it did on the day I received it.

Rabbi Noah Farkas, of Los Angeles, wrote this week, “This is what sacred love is.   To love each other not for self-centered greatness but for inspiring greatness in each other.  God is not in relationship with you to make God better.  God's relationship with you-the covenant-is to make you better.  So that you can heal your brokenness, to help you grow in spirit and fight for justice.

We can be this kind of light to others. We live in a world where there is much darkness. Sometimes it seems that our own light is so small and so insignificant that there is no use in getting involved. What can we do to change to course of this world? We are not able to feed all who are hungry. We cannot provide shelter for all who are homeless. We cannot rescue everyone who is forced to flee for their lives. How are we supposed to help those who are sick, provide clothing to all who are in need and give assistance to all those who have lost everything? The world is so big, and our light is so small.

It is surprising how much darkness can be dispelled by just one candle. Sometimes the difference can be as small as one vote, or one letter, or one voice that can make all the difference in making our world better. A little bit of light can go a long way to bringing comfort to a mourner and to bring peace to someone who is afraid. A warm smile can be just what is needed for someone who feels lost and alone. A kind word may be all that is necessary to help another through a difficult time.

Our Parsha teaches us that we can bring light and hope to the darkest corners of this planet if we take what God has given us; courage, faith, compassion and love, and use these gifts to make life brighter for those who still dwell in the dark. God’s light, the divine light shines in our very souls, and just as God shares the lights of creation with us, so too we must share our light so that we might rescue those who are lost in the darkness. Our light was meant to be shared, so let us share our light and show those in need the way to joy and peace as we say ….

Amen and Shabbat Shalom


Sermon given by Rabbi Randall Konigsburg at Beth Sholom B’nai Israel on Saturday, June 22, 2019.

Fri, July 10 2020 18 Tammuz 5780