Wednesday, February 17, 2016



An olive branch is an internationally recognised symbol of peace. In this week's parasha, Rabbi Haim Shalom show us how this tree, so sacred in our region, truly does represent peace and hope.

By Rabbi Haim Shalom

The first two verses of our parasha relate the commandment from Gd to Moses to install a light in the Tabernacle (and later Temple): 

"And you shall command the children of Israel, and they shall take to you pure olive oil, crushed for lighting, to kindle the lamps continually. In the Tent of Meeting, outside the dividing curtain that is in front of the testimony, Aaron and his sons shall set it up before the Eternal from evening to morning; [it shall be] an everlasting statute for their generations, from the children of Israel."

Olives are one of the central crops of the land of Israel, and they symbolize peace, home, safety (the olive branch carried by Noah's dove) and most of all: light. Light becomes one of the most powerful metaphors of the Jewish tradition. The Torah is commonly referred to as a light in the rabbinic world-view. When the rabbis refer to the Torah, they nearly always use the Aramaic term, "Oraita" – "the light". The importance of the lamp mentioned in verse 20 here is shown by the use of the term "Ner Tamid" – which in the pshat (original plain meaning of the text) probably means a "regular light" (according to Rashi for instance), but later comes to be understood as an Eternal light. This custom of having a constantly burning lamp in the Tabernacle was then transferred to the Temple (Mikdash), and from the Temple, it was transferred to each and every Synagogue (Mikdash Me'at) where the Jews found themselves in their years of exile. Perhaps this custom of the "Ner Tamid" was inspired by verse 21 here, which calls the practice of lighting a candle an ordinance for all generations. 

The medieval Hebrew poet Yannai is one of the first to connect the symbolism of the Menorah in the temple, which was carried off by the Romans (as can be seen to this day on the Arch of Titus), to the custom of Jews lighting candles on Shabbat. Though our Menorah may have been taken from us, we remember that we are still called upon to bring light into this world every Shabbat. Today's Shabbat candles are the real continuation of the Ner Tamid, more than a lonely light in a synagogue sanctuary. Those candles are lit in the warmth of a home – in the midst of a family – they symbolize all that the Ner Tamid was meant to bring – peace, harmony, home. The modern Hebrew poet, Zelda, describes the meaning of Shabbat candles thus: 

To light candles in all the worlds this is Shabbat.
To light Shabbat candles is the leap of a soul pregnant with secrets,
to a magnificent sea, filled with the mysteries of the fire of sunset.
As I light the candles, my room
turns to a River of Fire, my heart sinks in emerald waterfalls. 

Zelda's understanding of the Shabbat candles as a reminder of the redemptive power of light reflects our tradition's understanding of our responsibility to literally and metaphorically spread the light. The following story is told of Rabbi Israel Salanter, the founder of the modern Musar movement: 

"Rabbi Salanter once went to a shoemaker to have his shoes repaired. The hour was late and darkness had already descended. Noticing that the candle was burning out, the rabbi realized that the shoemaker might have trouble repairing the shoes in the dim light, and suggested that perhaps the work could wait till the next day. "Don't worry," replied the shoemaker, "I can work very well by candlelight. As long as the candle burns, it is still possible to fix the shoes." 

Rabbi Salanter immediately recognized the deep significance of the shoemaker's words. As long as the candle burned, he could repair what was broken. Likewise, as long as the spark of life still flickers in a person, that person can still repair his sinful ways. One should never despair."

Light – symbolizing home, peace and also hope – is a commodity which does not suffer from the modern mindset of zero-sum-gain – the opposite, in fact. Bamidbar Rabbah (Chap. 13) shares a profound truth about the nature of light and lights: "A person lights a candle from a candle, and the candle burns and the first candle is not diminished." 

Light, this most expressive and symbolic product of olives is a never-ending gift. It symbolizes peace, home and hope. It is for this reason, I believe, that olive trees have become so central to the work of RHR / Shomrei Mishpat. An olive tree appears at the top of the website of RHR/Shomrei Mishpat. The most common known program organized by the organization for people to take part in is the planting of olive trees. Olive trees, for all of this land's inhabitants, mean "home". The fight over olive trees is a fight over dominion. But whoever fights over an olive tree misses the point of the olive. Olives, and their light, do not come to this world to serve humanity, but that which is greater than humanity. They should never be used as part of a claim that this is my home but not yours – but rather in the true sense of home – a place where people can live together, in peace. When I was lucky enough to join RHR/Shomrei Mishpat for a tree planting, I knew that by replanting an olive tree in a place where someone had uprooted them, I was both literally and figuratively bringing a little more light into the world. I am always thankful that RHR is here, continuing to pass the light from one generation to the next, allowing for a Ner Tamid to shine forth from Zion. 


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