PURE OIL – Tetzaveh – Ex. 27:20ff – by Rabbi Baruch Cohon
The section called Tetzaveh – “You command” – which we read this week starts with a description of the fuel for the Eternal Light to be kindled in the holy Tabernacle in the desert. Moses is charged to command the Israelites to bring him “pure olive oil, beaten for lighting.” Exactly what does that require?
Commentators differ on the actual content of the oil. What needs to be pure, the olives that get beaten into oil, or the final product? It is the Ramban (Nachmanides) who points out that no fresh olives are available in the desert. No way the Israelites could supply those. Even the few olives they might have with them would be old, damaged, even rotten by now. What they do have is jugs of olive oil that their tribal leaders brought from Egypt. From that stock they can select pure fuel for this Mitzvah.
Since the Eternal Light – Ner Tamid – is today a trademark of every synagogue, we might well apply some thought to its symbolic value. Very few Eternal Lights today burn olive oil, and our ancestors in the desert had no electric power. But the purpose – the Mitzvah – did not change. Take the best, undamaged and never used. Never mind where it came from, and don’t count the cost. Use the best, to fulfill the Mitzvah, because the Eternal Light symbolizes the Divine Presence among us. And our own action keeps us conscious of that Presence.
Personal experience in producing a Ner Tamid for a local synagogue illustrates the point. We got a sculptor to design the fixture and get it fabricated. Then we installed it, with a special power cord with no switch, so it would stay illuminated around the clock. At this writing we are still experimenting with LED bulbs or other light sources to spread its message. I am sure the final results will add the little bit of inspiration that comes with this Mitzvah. It’s not oil, but let it be pure.