God, the light of the world, commands us to light a lantern in is home. Can there be any value to human acts in face of the divine infinity?
The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and say to him: “When you light the lamps, the seven lamps shall cast their light toward the face of the menorah.” Aaron did so; he lit the lamps toward the face of the menorah, as the Lord had commanded Moses.
Rashi’s famous commentary on this verse “Aaron did so – This shows Aaron’s virtue that he did not deviate [from God’s command]” brings about the discussion over the nature of religious devotion and the value of the performance of Mitzvoth.
In context of the commandment to light the Menorah, The Midrash raises a question asked by anyone searching for meaningful religious worship.
It is written (Psalms 18) “For you light my lamp; the Lord, my God, does light my darkness” Israel said before the lord: how can you say that we shall cast a light before you?! For you are the light of the world and the light dwells with you as it is written (Daniel 2) “He knows what is in the dark, and light dwells with Him”?!
Can there be any value to human actions when faced with the divine infinite? The feeling of worthlessness futility and lack of significance that stem from the state of facing the infinite, at times can prevent the possibility of full devotion to the performance of the. ‘A candle at mid-day is futile’ the sages often say. How then, are we expected to light a ‘Ner Mitzvah’ in the face of he who “[in his] light we will see light”?
Rabbi Nachman states: (Sichot Haran 51)
I do not know who can say that he worships the lord in accordance with the greatness of the creator. Any one who know even a little of his greatness I do not know how he can say that he actually worships him
Ironically, it is the awe and reverence of God that threatens and impairs the simple religious world of prayer and Mitzvoth.
The Midrash delves deeper into this topic:
‘For you light my lamp’. God said to them” not that I have need of you; rather I want that you should give me light as I have given light to you. Why? To raise you in the face of the nations, So that they will say: see how Israel gives light to he who gives light to the whole world!
A parable is given: a blind man and a seeing man were walking together. Said the seeing man to the blind one, as he entered the house: “Go and light this candle for me and illuminate for me”. Said the blind man: “I am in your favor, when I was on the road you supported me, until we entered the house you escorted me, and now you say ‘go and light this candle for me and illuminate for me’?!
Said the seeing man: “So that you do not owe me a favor for escorting you along the way, therefore I asked of you to light a candle for me.”
The seeing man is the Lord, as it is written (Zechariah 4)” the eyes of the Lord are roving to and fro throughout all the earth”. And the blind man is Israel as it is written (Yishayahu 59) “We tap a wall like blind men”. The lord would lead them and illuminate for them as it is written (Shemot 13) “And the Lord went before them by day”; once the Mishkan was assembled the lord called Moshe and said to him: illuminate for me, as it is written ‘ When you light [raise] the lamps- in order to raise you.
The expressions “give me light as I have given light to you ” and “so that you do not owe me a favor” remind us of the philosophy of the Ramchal, who explains that the fulfillment of a mitzvah allows man and God to look each other in the face and to overcome the ‘Hester Panim’, through them man is invited to join God and take part in the creation of the world. But here it would seem we are deprived of these utopian hopes. We are descried as the blind, perhaps not being able to withstand the brightness of the light, and the lighting of the candle represents the Mitzvah. The image of the blind man lighting a candle is painful one- his world is completely devoid of light, and perhaps may represent his inability to make contact, make a connection and come face to face. The reciprocity relationship that the Midrash yearns for, “give me light as I have given light to you” exists only outwardly, and both sides understand that is in essence impossible. Even the arrival at the ‘house’ the Mishkan does not bring with it any change for the blind man and from his point of view there is no difference between the road and the home.
How does the blind justify his lighting of the candle? It is the point of view of the outsider (real or imaginary) ‘the nations’, who don’t understand the ‘real story’, don’t understand who the real owner of the light is. Their view allows for the religious act to take place. So to in our world, at times the religious commandment acts only as a differentiator between the holy and the profane, light and darkness, Israel and the nations. Although performing a Mitzvah is similar to the blind man lighting a candle- it is the outer world, the profane, the dark, that form the distinction.
Rabbi Nachmans answer to his own question is that the Mitzvoth themselves are really not all that important in God’s eyes and it all a big joke to him, and what matters is our yearning and will to serve.
But if everything is only making believe and a big joke, is there no way to worship God seriously?
The Magid of Mezritch explains that laughter and game-play are at the heart of religious experience and the creation itself. God’s glory cannot be contained in the physical world and therefore he diminishes himself. Why is this diminishment in his interest? He gives the example of a father to a young child who wants to take a stick and ride it as if it was a horse. The father assists his son and takes great pleasure in doing so. Similarly, the creator is ‘playing around’ with his creation with joy and love that can only take place in this limited world.
The Midrash continues with a story of love. A king had a close friend, whom he asked to dine with. The friend prepared a simple lantern bed and table. But when he saw the king approaching surrounded by servants carrying a golden lantern, he was embarrassed by the simplicity of his furniture and discarded them. When the king asked why he had not prepared for his arrival the friend explained his embarrassment to which the king replied that he would throw away anything he had brought in favor of using his friends for his great love.
So the lord is all light, as it is written (Daniel 2) “light dwells with Him”‘ and he said to Israel make me a lantern and candles?! It is written (Shemot 25) “And they shall make Me a sanctuary and I will dwell in their midst” and “And you shall make a lantern of pure gold”. When this was done the Shechina resided, and it is written (Shemot 20) “Moses could not enter the Tent of Meeting” immediately he summoned him (Bamidbar 7) “When Moses would come into the Tent of Meeting to speak with Him, he would hear the voice speaking to him” what did he speak to him? “When you light the lamps”.
The perception of divine commandment in the first part of the Midrash is “For You light my lamp”. Mans work is to shine the light of god in a sick world- in face of other nations- even if that light is not within his own grasp. The second part however is speaking from a point of view where light and dark are one and the same- a perception where in the face of god the distinctions between holy and profane, inner and outer fade away. This is something that glory of god seemingly cannot stand, that the world cannot contain, and it is from this place calls that we are still able to come face to face, through love and commandment- and for these god forsakes his infinite glory, in favor of what man has to offer even although it is simple and finite.