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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Tetzave: Can God See in the Dark?

The first commandment in this week’s parsha concerns the oil for lighting in the Tabernacle. The Rabbis seem perturbed by the idea that we should be tasked with providing illumination for God. In Midrash Tanchumma they suggest that the Tabernacle needs light to guide the people in and out. God doesn't need it. We do. Alternatively, Midrash Rabba suggests that God gave us this commandment to bestow prestige upon the Jewish people. One day, the people of the world will say that the Israelites "provide illumination for the one who illuminates all". Not, of course, that God needs the light. Rather, the lighting is a ceremonial honour.

In the recent movie, 1917, two soldiers are discussing a medal awarded to British troops for bravery. One of them says, dismissively, that it's just a bit of tin. The other is shocked. “It’s not just a bit of tin," he says... and after a pause, he adds, "It’s got a ribbon on it.”

A great ceremonial honour can be pulled apart and analysed so as to strip away its sense. A Victoria Cross becomes a piece of tin with a ribbon on it. But to analyse it thus is to miss something. It misses what that tin and ribbon stand for. It symbolises an honour; an honour that only makes sense in the context of certain shared values between the people bestowing the honour, and the people receiving it.

Lighting a flame for God is as meaningless as any other religious ritual when you stop to think about the enormity of God. He doesn't need our light. But to think about it in that way is, once again, to miss something. This ritual wasn't commanded because God needs it. It was commanded to bestow an honour; an honour that only makes sense in the context of a relationship and certain shared values between God, who bestows the honour, and the Jewish people, who receive it.

Our two Midrashim -- one which relates to the lighting of candles as an aid to the humans who enter and leave the Tabernacle; and the other, which relates to the lighting of candles as a ceremonial honour -- converge upon the following parable, in explanation of the commandment (I quote from Midrash Rabba):

A sighted person and a blind person were walking together. The sighted person said, "Come and I will be your guide"; which enabled the blind person to walk. When they entered the house, the sighted person said to the blind person, "Go and light the candle for me, and provide me with light, so that you should no longer feel obliged to me for having accompanied you; therefore I said to you to light [the candle]."

Unpacking the parable, the Rabbis tell us that the sighted man symbolises God, since it is written:

For the eyes of the LORD range over the entire earth, to give support to those who are wholeheartedly with Him... (II Chronicles 6:9)

And the blind man symbolises the Children of Israel, since it is written:

We grope, like blind men along a wall; Like those without eyes we grope. We stumble at noon, as if in darkness... (Isaiah 59:10)

The Rabbis read into that verse a subtle allusion to the sin of the Golden Calf, which began at noon. We were like blind people stumbling in darkness, and God illuminated the way, as it is written:

The LORD went before them in a pillar of cloud by day, to guide them along the way... (Exodus 13:21).

The Midrash continues:

When they came to make the Tabernacle, Moses called to them and told them [that God had told him], "And they shall bring pure olive oil unto you for lighting" (Exodus 27:20). The Israelites replied [quoting from the book of Psalms (18:29)], ""It is You who lights my lamp; [the LORD, my God, lights up my darkness]." And you're telling us that we should make light before [God]?!" Moses replied: "[God commanded this] in order to raise you up, such that you should illuminate for me [i.e., for God], as I [i.e, God] have illuminated for you. And this is why [in the book of Jeremiah, God compares the Jewish people to a] verdant olive tree (Jeremiah 11:16).

As is so often the case, there seems to be an obvious mismatch between the point of the Midrash and the content of the parable. The point of the Midrash is that God didn't require the light even though he asked us to kindle flames. And yet, the parable compares this to a sighted person asking a blind person to light a candle in a dark house.

Dialogue in the Dark, Israel

Some years ago, I visited Dialogue in the Dark, an immersive museum about the experience of blindness. Visitors to this exhibit are guided through many different environments -- outdoors, indoors, urban, and rural -- all in pitch black darkness. Visitors are guided by people with severe visual impairment.

In that space, I was rendered helpless. I clung to my guide for dear life. If I wanted to light a candle in such a place, I would struggle. My guide would have found it easy. A dark house is, precisely, a place in which blind people are likely to function better than sighted people.

Perhaps the message of the Rabbis is this: God might be perfect, but his very perfection renders him unable to bring light into an imperfect world, at least not without the help of people whose so-called ‘imperfections’ actually render them more qualified to act in the darkness. Perhaps we are God's verdant olive tree because there's a sense in which God cannot illuminate the darkness of the world without our cooperation. We can be his lamp in the darkness.

It's as if the official position of the Midrash is that God doesn't need our light, and yet the hidden message, waiting to be unpacked, is that there's a sense in which he does.

But what of God's omnipotence?

Well, omnipotence is something of a philosophical puzzle. We say that God can do anything. And yet, most of us think that there's a sense in which he couldn't do evil. Does that render him less than omnipotent? A favourite question of folk-theology is, can God create a stone that's too heavy for him to lift? If he can't, then we've found something that he can't do. And if he can, then we've also found something that he can't do: namely, lift the stone. Can God do the impossible? If he can, then he can create a stone that's too heavy for him to lift, and he can lift it, but if he can do the impossible, then the impossible is rendered possible after all!

Maimonides avoids many of these questions with his insistence that God's omnipotence is limited to the logically possible.

When we say that God can do anything, we mean that he can do anything that's possible. In fact, Maimonides felt very strongly about this. He wrote:

We do not ascribe to God the power of doing what is impossible. No thinking man denies the truth of this maxim; none ignore it, except he who has no idea of Logic.

God can't make it the case that 2+2=5. Why not? Well, the sentence "2+2=5" doesn't describe a logical possibility. There's a sense in which it's meaningless. You haven't limited God if you say that "God can't do blablabla" because "blablabla" is meaningless. In exactly the same way, you haven't limited God if you say that "God can't make 2+2=5" because "2+2=5" is meaningless; as is "a stone too heavy for an omnipotent being to lift", so you haven't limited God when you say that he can't make it.


And indeed, it is sometimes the case that God's own perfection makes it logically impossible for him to be able to do certain things. For example. He can't do evil. God doing evil makes no sense, since he is essentially and perfectly good. He also can't make you freely do the good. If he was making you do it, then you wouldn't be doing it freely. This doesn't mean that his omnipotence is limited. Rather, it means that it's logically impossible for anything other than you to make you do something freely. As Maimonides might have put it: God cannot change your individual nature.

Perhaps the point of our Midrashim is that God's perfection, and our imperfection, means that there are some really good things that only we can do; or which we can do, at least, with more ease, like a blind person finding a candle and lighting it in the darkness.

In fact, the point might be that our weaknesses, in certain circumstances, can be transformed into strengths. Sometimes it is only the blind who can bring God’s light into a world of darkness. And if we rise to the occasion, then, in the light of the end of days, all of the nations of the world will rejoice, and give thanks to the Jewish people who functioned as God's verdant olive tree, illuminating the world for he who illuminates all.

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