Marc KatzComment

The Real Beneficiaries of Our Rituals (Parashat Beha'alotecha)

Marc KatzComment
The Real Beneficiaries of Our Rituals (Parashat Beha'alotecha)

As a rabbi, one of the most common critiques of religious practice I encounter begins with the words: “why does God care if I…” Usually this is followed by some specific mitzvah (commandment): lighting candles, fasting, keeping kosher, or keeping Shabbat.

Whenever I’ve been asked that question, my answer is usually “no.” I don’t believe that God cares. In fact, the notion that God is capable of caring at all is loaded idea.

Judaism is rich with a tapestry of theologies. Some are more rooted Biblical notions of God. These images are of a God who looks and feels human, a God who can get angry, jealous, and frustrated. This is a God who needs us as much as we need God.

But throughout time, many Jews have broken this image. Maimonides, for example in the 12th century imagined God as unchanging and lacking all form. This was a God that would not hear your prayer and thus could not answer it. Later thinkers like Martin Buber saw God as the space between two people who were connecting on a deep level or Mordecai Kaplan who saw God as the “source that makes for salvation,” a fancy way of saying that God is the extra push that each person or thing needs to reach its true potential.

Faced with a theological reality different than our ancestors, why bother engaging in practice of mitzvot? If God is not a God who cares if we pray or if we attend a Passover Seder (or even recognizes that we do it) why spend the energy?

While certain questions are products of modernity, this questions is not one of them. In fact, our ancestors have been asking this very question, in some form or another, for nearly two thousand years. And this week’s Torah portion was one of their chief platforms.

Our Torah begins with a commandment:

Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.” (Numbers 8:2)

Looking at this commandments, our ancient Rabbis ask a very important question. Taking  a close look a phrase which appears in the book of Psalms “For you give light to my lamp” (Psalms 19:29) they ask “You say that we should light before You (God) but you are the lamp of the world, and the light dwells within you” (Midrash Tanchuma Beha’altotcha 4). In essence, the Rabbi’s question is a simple one: if God is the source of all light, why does God need ours? If the lamps that were lit in the Temple serve no Divine purpose, are they worth lighting at all?

Like most good questions, there is no easy answer, so our Rabbis come up with three: 

  1. The purpose of the lamps was to show every faith and nation the deep commitment the Jewish people have toward God. Even though God does not need our light, we will still heed God’s call. The futility of the act, by its design, carries with it meaning. If God had needed the light we might have independently come to the conclusion that we should keep our fires burning. But if it makes no practical sense to light our lamps, then the sole reason we are engage in the ritual is because God asked. This answer comports with the famous rabbinic adage, “He who is commanded and does is greater than he who is not commanded and does” (Kiddushin 31a). (Midrash Tanchuma Beha’altotcha 4)

  2. The lamps were meant to be a reminder that God cared for the people. Our Rabbis likened the act of lighting to a house full of lanterns that needs no extra light. However, the owner of the house tells his servants to kindle lamps in the yard. The lights were actually for the servants who lived in houses adjacent to the main palace. But even though the owner rarely ventured there, he nevertheless asked his servants to light them in his honor. Knowing that people will tend to act for another before they act for themselves, they lit the lights for him, all the meantime benefiting personally from the light. Our Rabbis conclude their story with the postscript, “The Holy One, Blessed is He, said ‘It is not as if I cautioned you over the lamps because I need the light of mortals, but so that you should know how fond I am of you.’”  

    In our tradition, light in considered a source of joy. In fact, it is through light that we fulfil the commandment on Shabbat of oneg, of rejoicing. God knew that we would never light the candles for ourselves, so instead God commanded them for Godself. The lamp, then, would serve two purposes: it’s dancing flame would provide us with an opportunity to view beauty and it’s placement in the Temple would be a constant reminder that God cared enough to engage in this loving coercion in the first place. (Midrash Tanchuma Tetzavei 4)

  3. The lamps were a symbol of hope. Throughout time, light has been the symbol of salvation for the Jewish people. David famously wrote, “God is my light and my salvation, whom should I fear?” (Psalms 27:1). Light is also a symbol of messianic redemption, as Isaiah spoke about the future, “God will be an everlasting light for you; and your God [will be] your glory” (Isaiah 60:19). When the people would see the light, they would know that God was present and ready to protect them.  (Midrash Tanchuma Tetzavei 4)

Though there are certainly other explanations for why God might want the lamps lit, the specific answers are actually beside the point. The amazing thing is that our Rabbis would even ask the question in the first place.

The fascinating thing about this discussion is that even 2,000 years ago, the answer to the question I began with - does God even need our rituals - was and still is “no.” What is amazing about each of these answers is that they all boil down to the same answer I would give today, in 2017. In essence the Rabbis are saying “God doesn’t need them...but we do.” Their answers may be different than ours, however some, like light as a symbol of hope still resonate strongly with most people I know. Nevertheless, the rabbinic struggle to find meaning remains, and more than anything else, it gives us permission to ask big questions about Jewish practice, wrestling with presumptions of purpose and theological truths, and turning the focus of our actions back toward the real

For more writings by Rabbi Katz check out his book, The Heart of Loneliness or his blog