I met my friend, Avi, a few years ago at an orthodox synagogue on the upper west side of Manhattan, New York. Soon after meeting Avi, I learned that he was not orthodox. He was, however, quite spiritual and had a strong sense of Jewish identity. Once we became close friends, he admitted that while sometimes he darns tefillin, his perpetual state of Jewish guilt often prohibits him from praying. Nearly every time I asked him if he had prayed lately, he would respond, “I just can’t keep kosher, Ariella. I love Chinese buffet way too much to give it up! How can I go to synagogue and pray after eating treif (unkosher food) and everything else I do wrong?” Avi’s guilt over his imperfections kept him from drawing near to God.
This week’s parsha, Tetzaveh, discusses the rules of the Kohanim (priests) and the korbanot (sacrifices), which the Kohanim bring on behalf of the Jewish people. However, seemingly unrelated, the parsha begins with a brief passage on the oil required to kindle the sanctuary’s menorah (candelabrum).
In the beginning of the parsha, God commands the Children of Israel to take only pure olive oil (meaning without any admixture of foreign substance or even olive sediment) to illuminate and kindle the menorah. However, all other oils in the sanctuary, which were mainly used for korbanot, were not required to be pure, pressed olive oil. In fact, these oils could even be made of crushed olives. The difference in the requirements of oil lies in the purpose for which the oils serve.
A korban, during the times of the Temple, was an animal sacrifice given to God. But, today, in the absence of the Temple, our korban to God is prayer. A korban is intended to bring us closer to God. When each of us approaches God, we come with impurities and imperfections. Just as He accepts the impure oil used for korbanot, God knows and understands that we, too, are imperfect and embraces us in our prayers nonetheless. The korban serves to remind us of what God already knows. It reminds us that we are neither pure nor perfect; rather, our impurity should never prevent us from drawing near to God.
Contrary to the korbanot, the menorah symbolizes Torah. The Torah, the Divine law, is pure, perfect and the untainted word of God. God’s commandment that we use pure oil in the menorah intends to remind the Jewish people of the Torah’s purity and sanctity. Through its purity, Torah can illuminate our lives, just as the menorah illuminated the sanctuary.
However, God’s commandment to the Children of Israel to bring pure oil to the menorah is a message to all of us that we can always reach for perfection and try to obtain purity in our lives. Tanya, Chapter 35, quoting the comment of the Yenuka (Zohar, Parshat Balak), teaches us that the Shechinah, God’s spirit, rests upon man’s head. Therefore, “[m]an must know that the Light which shines above his head needs oil [meaning good deeds]; for the body of a man is a wick, and the Light is kindled above it.” By fulfilling Torah and the mitzvoth (commandments), we can fill ourselves with the pure oil of Torah and kindle the Light, the Shechinah, above us.
Just like Avi, we are all imperfect and impure human beings. But, we mustn’t suffer from the guilt of our impurities, which can cripple us from drawing near to God. Rather, with our imperfections, we should bring the korbanot – that is, our prayers – to come closer to God. And, maybe one day, through the performance of mitzvoth, we can achieve entire purity, as represented by Torah, and ensure that the Light above our heads brightly shines.