Torah | Rules for Tabernacle teach us to create light in wilderness


Numbers 8:1-12:16

Zechariah 2:14-4:7

The wilderness was a scary place for the Israelites. The food was unfamiliar; there were new, God-given rules. The Israelites were navigating a big, confusing transition from the boundaries of slavery to a wide, open freedom. While their time in Egypt was awful and inhumane, at the very least the Israelites knew their place. Freedom was something new. They had to learn how to be free, how to function on their journey toward promise.

This week’s parashah, Beha’alotcha, describes the Israelites in transition. God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites to build a mishkan, a dwelling place for God. As they build, they follow God’s specific directions — even when they don’t quite understand them.

As they connect beams and rods, God’s presence hunkers down as a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. This assures the Israelites that God is with them on this journey. By day, God’s cloud provides shade and direction. By night, God’s fire sheds light and warmth. They know they are not alone.

In our lonely moments, in our transitional times, it would be nice to have this proof of God’s presence. It could help, when we are lost, to have a cloud that lingers, leading the way. It could help, when it is dark, to have a pillar of fire up ahead. But alas, the tabernacle has long since been built, and we are on our own.

We each wander in our own wilderness. We all have times when we are between where we are, and where we’d like to be. This is when we search for a sign telling us “You are not alone.”

In “Text Messages: A Torah Commentary for Teens,” Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove tells this parable about the owner of an antique store and his apprentice:

A shop owner used to work from the back of his store, leaving the apprentice to meet customers in the front. The owner never took a vacation.

When a customer would make an offer on an antique, the owner would listen to his apprentice’s response: “I will have to check with the owner, as the price you offer is so low.” The owner knew he couldn’t take a vacation.

Over time, the apprentice’s response shifted: “The price you offer is far too low; the owner would never agree.”

Finally, the owner heard the apprentice say: “The price you offer is much too low. I could never sell you this antique for that price.”

The owner smiled. He knew that he could finally take his vacation. The apprentice was ready to act on his own, because he had begun to think and speak for himself.

We are apprentice to God as the shop owner, and it appears that we are ready to mind the store.

Our parashah begins with another instruction for the Israelites: “ ‘When you mount the lamps, let the seven lamps give light at the front of the lampstand.’ Aaron did so, he mounted the lamps at the front of the lampstand” (Numbers 8:2).

The Israelites don’t know yet that when they approach the Promised Land, they will no longer have the comfort of cloud and fire as they make their permanent home. The Israelites will soon be like us: seeking company, seeking light. When building, the Israelites couldn’t know the purpose of that menorah. They didn’t know if it was meant to be ornamental or functional. They didn’t know what we know — that when we are wandering in our own wilderness, we need to make our own fire.

Emerging from their wilderness, the Israelites can provide light for themselves. They had already built the menorah and carried it through the desert. Now they only need to light it. The Israelites, like the shopkeeper’s apprentice, are ready to light their own way.

As we each make our way through the wilderness, we find sources of light: the hand of a friend, the smile of a partner. We find strength in words of Torah, or in a Shabbat community shared with other joyful hearts. When we wander, it is on us — for ourselves and for one another — to build our own fire, to seek our own light. We can be the place where the holy dwells.

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at [email protected]

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin

Rabbi Sara Mason-Barkin is an associate rabbi and educator at Peninsula Temple Beth El in San Mateo. She can be reached at [email protected].