Our Parsha focuses almost exclusively on the garments that were to be worn by the Kohen HaGadol and the ordinary Kohanim in the Mishkan, and the consecration of the Kohanim themselves to be worthy of serving there. It is therefore surprising that our Parsha begins with the command that there be a ner tamid, an everlasting flame, to be lit on the menora by the Kohen HaGadol. The appearance of the command here (it appears in Sefer VaYikra, perek 24, passukim 1-4 as well), raises questions both as to the nature of the mitzva as well as to its mention at this particular juncture. At first glance it appears out of place. After all, in the just completed Parshat Teruma, the Torah describes in exhaustive detail the requirements for building the Mishkan and its utensils. In our Parsha we are about to be treated to an equally exhaustive description of the design and preparation of the clothes worn by the Kohanim when performing their functions in the Mishkan. Why then does the Torah interrupt with a Mitzva that is descriptive of the Avoda in the Mishkan, rather than continuing with the mitzvot of the Mishkan itself?
The Abarbanel raises this point in the first questions that he asks on our Parsha. He answers that in fact the Torah is not giving the mitzva of Ner Tamid at this point. The actual mitzva is given in Parshat Emor, which we cited above (for the record, the Sefer HaChinuch quotes the mitzva in our Parsha). Rather, the Torah is setting the stage for the mitzva of Bigdei Kehuna. Since the Kohanim will be entering the Kodesh morning and night to light the Menorah, it would be inappropriate for them to do so in their everyday dress. Instead, they are required to wear special garments with which they will do the Avoda. Significantly, the Abarbanel bases this distinction on the fact that the word “t’zave”, to command, is conjugated here in the future tense, i.e. you will command Bnei Yisrael to bring the necessary materials for fulfilling this mitzva. The Abarbanel understands that the command to prepare priestly garments precedes the command to light the Ner Tamid.
The Abarbanel’s answer is puzzling. First of all, he fails to explain why the mitzva of Ner Tamid was chosen to demonstrate this point rather than another mitzva (the commands of both the burning of the Ketoret and the bringing of the Korban Tamid are examples of mitzvot which were performed both morning and evening). On a more basic level, however, the Abarbanel’s answer is even more troubling. As Nechama Leibowitz points out, the premise of the Abarbanel’s question is that there is no special significance to this mitzva in the larger context of the Mishkan. Essentially, the Abarbanel is only asking the second of the two questions that we had raised, namely, why does the Torah interrupt the mitzvot of the Mishkan with a mitzva of the Avoda performed in the Mishkan. He ignores the question of if there is any significance to the mitzva itself, especially in its present context. He is therefore content to ask what the mitzva is doing here, and to give a technical answer to what emerges as a technical problem.
In fact, a number of commentators do address the question of the significance of the Ner Tamid to the Mishkan. Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch, for example, contrasts between the ketoret and the menora. This contrast is based on the passuk in the beginning of Parshat Teruma (25:6) that counts oil for both the menora and the ketoret amongst the articles that are used in building the Mishkan. (It is interesting to note that the association between ketoret and the menora is found elsewhere in Tanach. Rabbenu B’Chaye Ibn Asher begins his commentary on our parsha with a midrashic analysis of the passuk in Mishlei where this association appears.) According to R. Hirsch, in addition to the Avoda aspect, which is obviously present in both the menora and the ketoret, there is an additional philosophical aspect to both of these mitzvot which link them to the building of the Mishkan. The ketoret represents mans willingness to sublimate all of his actions to Hashem’s will, to make one’s actions pleasing to G-d. This of course is the meaning of the phrase “rayach nichoch L’Hashem”, a pleasing scent to G-d. The menora, on the other hand, represents clarity of thought. This is consistent with the idea of Torah being represented by light. For the Mishkan to be successful as a vehicle to ensure Hashem’s presence amongst us, these two aspects must be present. Therefore, says R. Hirsch, they are considered to be essential to the building of the Mishkan.
While R. Hirsch explains why the lighting of the Ner Tamid is part of the building of the Mishkan, he does not link the menora to the major theme of the parsha, the Bigdei Kehuna. The Malbim, quoting the darshan R. Yedidya Bedersi, sees a symbolism between the clothes worn by the Kohen and the oil of the menora. When man and Torah combine, it represents the light of Hashem on earth. Two aspects of man, the physical and the spiritual, are necessary for this combination to take place. The physical is represented by the begadim, the clothes, while the spiritual is represented by oil. Only when both are pure can man represent godliness and Torah in the world, and the Mikdash be properly lit.
I believe that we can find a similar idea suggested by the Akeidat Yitzhak. He suggests that clothes are in fact a metaphor for a person’s middot, his personal qualities. Just a person’s dress will often reveal much about his standing, so too does his middot reveal much about the type of person he truly is. An individual who wishes to truly come close to Hashem must first focus on his or her personal character in order to be worthy of that connection to Hashem. The Bigdei Kehuna precede the Ner Tamid (as we noted in the Abarbanel above). Only once a person has donned his clothes, his middot, can he become the pure light reflecting godliness in the world. We cannot compartmentalize, nor can we shirk from our responsibilities toward others and toward society at large. Only when we purify ourselves, will we be worthy of representing the purity of Hashem and His Torah.
May we, and all of Am Yisrael be blessed this Purim with the bracha of LaYehudim Hayita Ora v’Simcha.