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Shabbat B’ha’a’lot’cha 

2 June 2023

Dear Members and Friends,

The account of the building of the Tabernacle and its dedication concludes with the lighting of the lamps by Aaron in this week’s Torah portion.  It is a poignant moment for the High Priest whose task it is to set up the menorah, a work of hammered gold, and to light the seven lamps. His role has plunged him into the daily tasks of the priesthood: the census of all conscripts from the age of twenty and upwards, the arrangement of the tribes’ encampment around the Tent of Meeting, the appointment of the Levites to assist him and his sons, the care of the sanctuary, collection of money from the firstborn for their redemption, and the many other tasks with which he is burdened.

Somewhere near the beginning of the Book of Numbers, as each of these duties are mentioned, we are reminded of the loss of two of Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, who died in a conflagration inside the Tent of Meeting. Re-reading the beginning of this week’s parashah, I wonder if Aaron is the man who distracts himself from his grief and sorrow, by immersing himself in the daily tasks of life, but who suddenly – given the task of lighting the lamps, in a moment of stillness and remembrance – is stricken by the personal tragedy of losing two of his sons.

I am often asked by mourners – when do you light a candle in memory of a relative who has recently died. And I give the answer that as soon as one returns from the funeral – whether a burial or a cremation – a memorial candle is lit in the home. It is a tiny flame of light that illumines the darkness of loss and grief and, perhaps, it is also the first creative act performed by mourners after the death of a close relative, a symbol of life and a reminder of God’s first act of creation. And of course, the memorial light is also lit on the yahrzeit – the anniversary of a loved one’s death.

I once attended a funeral in the little prayer hall in the cemetery in Nottingham and was moved by the appearance of two lighted candles which remained on the coffin throughout the service. The opening verses of this week’s Torah portion speak of the lights going up – b’ha’a’lot’cha ha-nerot – and it seemed to me, in the bleakness of that moment, these flames symbolised something about the human spirit – the spirit of the man who had died, and the resilience and strength of the living, even in the darkest of times.

Light is not only associated with grief, but also with joy and festive moments: welcoming Shabbat or a festival as we light candles at home or in the synagogue, or extinguishing a thick plaited candle in wine as we say farewell to Shabbat with the ceremony of Havdalah. And there is the ner tamid – the everlasting light – that hangs above the Ark, a symbol of God’s presence in our midst – ‘In Your light we see light,’ says the Psalmist (Psalm 36:10).

Even in the aftermath of a private, family tragedy, Aaron, the distinguished High Priest and his wife, Elisheva, are called upon to fulfil their public duties in the sight of all Israel.

A midrash so accurately and poignantly captures this affirmation of life in the midst of painful loss: ‘Elisheva, the wife of Aaron had five ‘crowns’ of joy.’ Her brother-in-law, Moses, was a king; her husband, Aaron, was the High Priest; her son, Eleazar, was the deputy High Priest; her grandson, Pinchas, was a war priest; and her brother, Nachshon, a prince. But on that same day of joy, she was in mourning for her two sons, Nadav and Avihu, as it is written (Ecclesiastes 2:2): ‘Of revelry, I said, it is mad (m’holal),’ for a person’s joy in this world is not complete, it is always mixed (mahul) with sadness’ (bZevachim 102a, Leviticus Rabbah 20:2).

Light is not light without darkness and stars shine brightly in the darkest skies.  It is this fusion of life and death, darkness and light that sets us on a path to find the strength and capacity to illumine the world with our own deeply human spirit of hope and love.

Shabbat Shalom,

Alexandra Wright

Mon, 5 June 2023 16 Sivan 5783