I often find myself worrying about the very first word of tomorrow’s reading from the Torah. It’s easy to translate it as ‘When you kindle’. The context is God’s commandment to Aaron and his descendants to light the lamps on the seven-branched Menorah.
However, beha’alotecha doesn’t mean ‘when you kindle’ but rather ‘when you cause to ascend’. On one level, it’s the same idea. You only have to think of the action of getting a reluctant candle to catch light, of straightening the wick with the end of the match so that the tiny flame can find its nourishment in the melting wax and burn bright and straight.
But on another level the word evokes something much deeper, which the rabbis expressed in an epigrammatic four-word Midrash which expands to embrace the very purpose of our lives: ‘Neri beyadecha, venercha beyadi – My light is in your hands, and your light is in mine’, says God. This saying has become to me a byword for responsibility, faith, even love itself.
God’s light is in our hands in innumerable ways.
Last night, here in South Wales where Nicky and I have travelled to celebrate a wedding, a hare got caught in our headlines. I was terrified of hurting it. Walking in nearby paths, the scent of honeysuckle in the hedgerow arrested us. A pair of blackbirds flew low across a lane. This country has lost over 90% of its meadows since the war; it’s among the lowest in the entire world in the preservation of its native species. Even a minyan, a quorum of bees, is God’s light in our hands.
I’m reading Francoise Malby-Anthony’s account of creating a wildlife reserve in South Africa: An Elephant in my Kitchen, in which she describes the almost impossible efforts to protect young elephants and rhinos, close to extinction, from poachers.
Today the light of all nature is in our care. We can let it ascend, or crush and kill it forever. There’s nothing which isn’t at stake.
Still, ‘my light is in your hands and your light is in mine’ finds its most intimate context in our relationships with one another.
We are here to enable each other’s light to ascend. The true teacher sees the pupil’s potential, sometimes even before she does herself, nurturing the flame until it gives light of its own accord.
Being a true friend means caring for the light in his or her life. Close relationships are not about seeking to benefit from, but cherishing, loving the flame in the heart and mind of our partner. Nowhere is this trust greater than in parenting and caring for children: their tender light lies truly in, and at, the mercy of our hands.
How shameful it feels to fail to appreciate and respect these lights, let alone be driven by wilful disregard, envy or enmity to dim and diminish them.
In the Temple, the Menorah was placed in the kodesh, the holy precincts, lighting the route to the kodesh hakodashim, the holy of holies, the most intimate space where God’s presence hovered invisibly over the ark of the covenant. The holy of holies in any life is always private, secret often even from ourselves. The Menorah illumines the path towards it.
Beha’alotecha, – in enabling each other’s flame to ascend, we can help one another find our way to what is most holy of all, the very source and wonder of life itself, in faithful trust and love. For we are responsible for each other, and all God’s creation.