Illuminating inner demons can turn us toward holiness


Exodus 27:20-30:10

Ezekiel 43:10-27

For the Chassidic masters, descriptions of the desert sanctuary, its furnishings and the roles of those who served in it give us far more than historical information about our people's ancient worship practices. In the Chassidic tradition, the mishkan, or desert sanctuary, comes to life as a metaphor for the sacred place within each person. The Torah's instructions for building and caring for the tabernacle become a blueprint for the work each one of us must do to nourish a place inside us where the Divine may live.

At the start of this week's parashah, on the surface of the text, we find instructions to create a ner tamid, an eternal light. At a deeper level, we find a clue as to how to purify our inner life so that we may live more and more in the light of the Divine.

Rebbe Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev writes that every one of us has within us the yetzer hara, the evil inclination, the impulses to do wrong, to inflict hurt, to indulge our selfish instincts, to turn away from the Holy. So, too, each of us is plagued by machshavot zarot, literally, strange thoughts.

They may be distracting thoughts that hijack the attention in prayer or meditation (planning the laundry list in the middle of the Amidah prayer, or rehearsing a long, angry story of revenge while trying to sing a psalm of praise). Sometimes the term is used to describe sexual instincts, especially desires for forbidden relationships. At others, it seems to apply more generally to attacks of negative qualities that at times besiege us all (moments of petty anger, envy, stinginess, hate and the like).

I love the way the Chassidic tradition talks about machshavot zarot. First, I love it that these great spiritual masters clearly struggled with inner demons, just as I know I do. In fact, these writings seem to accept the reality that we cannot completely remove these unholy impulses from our lives; they are a part of being human. Rather, these writings suggest that we transform these negative thoughts by recognizing them when they appear, and then transforming them, by elevating them, by returning them to their Source.

How might one do this? By saying to oneself, "What a powerful instinct I just felt — to pursue my own honor, to indulge my addiction, to turn away from another's pain! If my urge to do this is so strong, just imagine how much power lies at my disposal, were I to turn my instincts toward God, toward the Holy!" Or perhaps we might regard this flash of negative instinct as an alarm, awakening us once again to the way in which we really want to live — to serve, to appreciate life, and to give and receive love.

By doing so, teaches Rebbe Levi Yitzhak, the "evil" (that nasty thought or vengeful instinct) becomes a "throne for the good." The impulse to do wrong becomes a platform or a vehicle for transformation — the impetus to turn my intention even more strongly toward living a life of holiness and devotion.

What, you might ask, has any of this to do with Parashat Tetzaveh? The mid-rashic imagination is delightfully at work here. The rebbe looks at the verse, "Bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, to elevate a light perpetually," and notices that the numerical value of the word for "clear," zach, is 27, the number of letters in the Hebrew alphabet. In the Jewish mystical imagination, the letters of the Hebrew alphabet have ultimate cosmic significance, since the world was created by God's speech. Thus, says the rebbe, "If you want to elevate everything — all thoughts, which are composed of the 27 letters…into the light, then the tzaddik (any person who aspires to righteousness) must raise these thoughts into the light of holiness. All of this is for the purpose of kindling a ner tamid (in the human soul, in the world)."

Rebbe Yitzhak invites us to reflect personally on the Torah's description of the ner tamid. What sort of light do we want to be — to our loved ones, our community, to the world? How do we need to care for our inner light each day, that it may illuminate our words, our deeds and even our thoughts? In these times, in which the world so dearly needs illumination, may we be inspired to tend our own inner light with more care and more devotion.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at