Depiction of the Menorah sketched in Maimonides’ own hand.
Our parasha for this week opens with the command that Aaron the High Priest is to be tasked with lighting the seven candles of the Menorah daily. This follows last week’s parasha, where the heads of each tribe bring gifts at the dedication of the Tabernacle. Neither Aaron, nor his family, nor his tribe are present in this gift giving ceremony. Rabbi’s imagine that Aaron is disappointed in not being represented at this dedication of the sanctuary. So, G-d, by way of consoling Aaron, comes to him in this week’s parasha saying, “Do not be downcast, Aaron, for your role is greater than theirs! It is your duty, and the duty of your descendants, to trim and light the wicks of the Menorah throughout the generations.”
Contrary to this midrash, which makes the lighting of the Menorah the purview of the High Priest and his family, the Talmud tells us that in the Temple in Jerusalem, the lighting of the Menorah could be done by a layperson. The only duty restricted to the Priest was to trim the wicks of the lamps. Once the Priest prepared the wicks for lighting, he could bring the Menorah out from the holy area where the layperson was not allowed, and the layperson could light the Menorah. Then the Priest would return the lit Menorah to its proper place in the Temple precinct.
It must have been considered a great honor for a layperson to have the privilege of lighting the menorah in the Temple in Jerusalem. To imagine what this must have meant, think of the excitement a person might feel were they asked to throw the first pitch of a Cubs baseball game. Or how it must feel to be asked to ring the bell to start the trading day on Wall Street. That is what it must have felt like to be asked to light the Menorah at the Temple in Jerusalem. And like those two secular events in our own time, the honor must have been given in recognition of an achievement or of a high position in government or industry. You cannot just walk off the street and throw the first pitch of a baseball game!
If the actual lighting of the Menorah can be done by a layperson, what does that teach us about what is left of the mitzvah for the priest – the preparing and the trimming of the wick. We can reason from this that it is a greater mitzvah to prepare the candle for lighting than it is for the lighting itself. This teaches us that preparing to do a mitzvah is more important than the performance of the mitzvah itself. Holiness is found in the preparation for a mitzvah even more so than carrying it out.
It is something to think about the next time we are studying a Torah portion to read it in synagogue, when we are getting dressed up to attend a service, when we are baking challah for Friday night or setting the table for our Shabbat dinner. The mitzvah is not only in chanting before the congregation in the synagogue, or in attending the service, or in eating the Challah, or in dining together. The greater mitzvah, according to the Rabbis, comes in the preparation to do all these things. These are the holiest of moments. We need to appreciate them as such.