A Small and Steady Light
In the simple instruction to kindle lamps in the mishkan, our interpretive tradition leaps into a theological spiral. What is the relationship between human light and divine light? The human role in creating light in the world becomes an opportunity to delve into the question of significance, or insignificance, of our efforts, and whether a sense of embarrassment is constructive or inhibiting.
Parashat BeHa’alotekha begins with the instruction to prepare the lamps in the mikdash. It might seem obvious to have a beautiful source of light in a sanctuary, but the Midrash finds this instruction baffling. Biblical verses describe how before God there is no such thing as darkness,1 and how light “dwells with” God.2 So why would God tell us to light up the mikdash? If God dwells there, it must already be full of divine light!3
The midrash brings a parable to make sense of this paradox:
במדבר רבה בהעלותך טו:ח
למה"ד למלך שהיה לו אוהב אמר לו המלך תדע שאצלך אני סועד אלא לך ותקן לי הלך אוהבו והתקין מטה של הדיוט מנורה של הדיוט ושלחן של הדיוט כיון שבא המלך באו עמו שמשין סיבבו מיכן ומיכן מנורה של זהב לפניו כיון שראה אוהבו את כל הכבוד התבייש והטמין את כל מה שהתקין לו שהיה הכל הדיוטות. א"ל המלך לא אמרתי לך שאצלך אני סועד! למה לא התקנת לי כלום? אמר לו אוהבו ראיתי את כל הכבוד הזה שבא עמך ונתביישתי והטמנתי כל מה שהתקנתי לך שהיו כלי הדיוטות. אמר לו המלך חייך שאני פוסל את כל כלי שהבאתי ובשביל אהבתך איני משתמש אלא בשלך.
Bemidbar Rabbah BeHa’alotekha 15:8
What is this like? Like a king who had a friend. The king said to him: “Know that I will dine with you (at your house). So go and prepare for me!” The friend went and prepared a layperson’s couch, a layperson’s lamp and a layperson’s table. When the king arrived, an entourage surrounded him on either side and a golden candelabra was in front of him. Once the friend saw all of this glory he became embarrassed and hid all that he had prepared for him, since it was all mundane implements. The king said to him, “Did I not tell you that I would dine with you?! Why did you prepare nothing for me?” The friend responded, “I saw all of this glory, that came with you, and I was embarrassed and hid all that I had prepared for you because it was all mundane implements.” The king responded to him, “I swear that I will ruin all of my implements that I brought, and because of your love I will only use yours.”
What is this story meant to teach us? Are we meant to emulate the friend in our own religious lives, or is he a counter role model, teaching us what not to do? One of the most central questions at stake in our interpretation is how to relate to embarrassment, and whether it plays a constructive or crippling role in our relationship with God.
The hassidic teacher, R. Yehudah Leib Alter (known as Sefat Emet) offers multiple readings of this story. At first, in 1876, the Sefat Emet sees the story as a tragedy, and the friend as an anti-role model. The friend shouldn’t have been embarrassed, the glory of the king need not have vanished:
והנראה מזה המשל כי באמת הי' הדרך הנכונה שיכין האוהב אשר לו אף שרואה כלים של המלך אעפ"כ יעשה הוא את שלו. רק בעבור שנתבייש האוהב צוה המלך להטמין כל כבודו. אבל באמת למה יגרע מכבוד המלך.
…וזה מאמר הכתוב אל מול פני המנורה יאירו שאף שיראה כל ההארות העליונות לא יתבייש ויעשה את שלו. ויעש כן אהרן אל מול כו' שלא שינה. פי' שלא נעשה שינוי והסתר ע"י כנ"ל. והוא שבח גדול ...
…it appears from this parable that in truth, it was correct for the friend to prepare what he had and even when he saw the kings’ implements he should have nevertheless used his own. But since the friend was embarrassed, the king ordered to hide his glory. But why should the glory of the king be diminished?!
…This is what it means when it says: opposite the face of the menorah they will shine— that even when one sees all of the supernal lights, one should still not be embarrassed and do their service. Aharon did this opposite the face of the menorah—he was not deterred. This means that there was no change or hiddenness brought about through him, and it is great praise…
In contrast to the behavior of the embarrassed friend in the parable, Aharon is meant to inspire confidence in our own sense of doing what we are meant to do. It is unhelpful and damaging to evaluate our accomplishments through comparison. Yes, our light is insignificant with respect to divine light. We never do “enough” compared to what could be done and what needs to be done. But that must not deter us. Aharon represents holding steadfast in our avodah, our integrity about what we need to do, no matter how “small” that may seem. It never feels small because it feels so right.
Yet a few years later (in 1878), the Sefat Emet offered an opposite reading. The parable becomes a beautiful love story, where the friend’s shyness and embarrassment was actually a critical catalyst to deepen a relationship with God:
והנראה מזה המשל כי באמת הי' הדרך הנכונה שיכין האוהב אשר לוובאמת עי"ז הבושה שנתבייש והטמין כליו על ידי זה זכה שיתקבלו כליו להמלך... ומורי וזקני ז"ל פי' פני המנורה זו שבת... כי ע"י הבושה שבא לאדם בבוא השבת ויודע כי מעשיו צריכין לעלות לקבל פני השכינה. שזה ענין השבת. החזרת כל דבר למקומו ושירשו. ועל ידי הבושה יכולין לעלות באמת כנ"ל....
In truth, it is through his sense of embarrassment that made him hide away his implements that he was able to merit that his implements be received by the king…
My teacher, my grandfather explained: the face of the menorah is Shabbat… Through the embarrassment that a person experiences when Shabbat comes and one knows all deeds need to be lifted up to greet the divine presence, through the embarrassment we are able to truly rise up…
In this about-face, Sefat Emet embraces the feeling of embarrassment we may feel about ourselves in relation to God and sees that embarrassment as an indicator of being aware of God’s presence. It is a sign of revelation—a kind of embarrassment that comes from the giddiness of having a moment of closeness and exposure, like what we are meant to experience every Shabbat. Embarrassment is in no way demoralizing but rather strengthens our relationship with God and the extent to which we feel close to God’s presence.
In our own world, the whole premise of the problem may feel off. We don’t live in the idealized picture of the mikdash overflowing with divine light and may instead experience an intense void of divine presence. Rather than feeling the smallness of our “light” by being overwhelmed by the presence of divine light, we may be much more inclined to feel our efforts are futile in the face of a vast darkness. What is the point of the little bit of light we can shine, if it feels so feeble in comparison to all the work that needs to be done in our world?
We can still apply these two readings by the Sfat Emet. On the one hand, we can embrace embarrassment. To the extent we feel our efforts are small, this can be a flipside of “revelation.” We only feel what we are doing is “small” if we have a strong sense of a greater vision about what could and should be. In this way, any embarrassment about our efforts can turn into a catalyst, motivating us to come closer to that vision.
Simultaneously, we can try to cultivate a posture that is not concerned with the size of our impact. We can practice the opposite of the friend’s behavior in the story and practice steadfastness and confidence, even when we can’t see the full picture of how our efforts will leave an impact.
I do not know why the Sefat Emet so abruptly shifted his understanding of such a fundamental religious posture. In the times he lived, at the end of the 19th century as the Enlightenment movement spread to Eastern Europe, there was certainly a lot of foment and shifting attitudes around pride or embarrassment in religious practice. Even as he teaches about the value of “not changing” one’s practice like Aharon (שלא שינה), it is clear that his own thinking changed and grew throughout his life. Taking in these dynamic interpretations, we can embrace a religious life that names and affirms both embarrassment and confidence, sticking to the plan and changing plan, as part of a practice of integrity.