Tetzaveh opens with instructions for the oil lamps that were kindled daily in the Mishkan (Wilderness Tabernacle), outside the curtain that is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages (Exodus 27:21). (To this day, every synagogue has a Ner Tamid (eternal light) hanging above the aron ha-kodesh (holy ark) as a remembrance of the lamps lit in the Mishkan.) The menorah’s design for distinctive: a seven-branched candelabrum. In last week’s parashah, Terumah, we find the description:
You shall make a lampstand of pure gold; the lampstand shall be made of hammered work; its base and its shaft, its cups, calyxes, and petals shall be of one piece. Six branches shall issue from its sides; three branches from one side of the lampstand and three branches from the other side of the lampstand. (Exodus 25:31-32; the description continues through verse 40)
In contrast, the High Priest’s breastplate (the choshen) was adorned with twelve precious and semi-precious stones:
Set in it mounted stones, in four rows of stones. The first row shall be a row of carnelian, chrysolite, and emerald; the second row: a turquoise, a sapphire, and an amethyst; the third row: a jacinth, an agate, and a crystal; and the fourth row: a beryl, a lapis lazuli, and a jasper. They shall be framed with gold in their mountings. The stones shall correspond [in number] to the names of the sons of Israel: twelve, corresponding to their names. They shall be engraved like seals, each with its name, for the twelve tribes. (Exodus 27:17-21)What is the significance of seven and twelve? Universalism and particularity.
The seven-branched menorah symbolizes the Israelite conviction that God the Creator’s divine providence extends to all Creation, not just to Israel. Torah begins with a universalistic perspective. There are no Jews in Genesis 1 or 2; indeed there are no Jews for 20 generations until Abraham, and no Jewish nation until the second book of Torah. We Jews locate our origins amidst all humanity.
The twelve stones embedded in the High Priest’s breastplate signify the unity of the Jewish people and their particular covenant with God. The twelve tribes constitute one nation, one people. It is the particular and unique experience of the Jewish people – who experience God’s redemption and enter into a covenant with God – that informs our ethics, values, and way of life.
Universalism and particularity: inseparable, complementing each other. If we shed our unique identity and traditions, we forfeit not only the wisdom, insights, and ethical values of Judaism, but also the Jewish way of encountering the divine in the world. If we live only with a mind to protect our Jewish identity, we forfeit the wisdom of the world around and fail to contribute the best that Judaism has to offer in addressing the perplexing issues of our day and eternal dilemmas of human existence.
The morning prayer service opens on a highly particularistic note: the Israelites’ experience of redemption at the Reed Sea. It happened to us, it happened for us, and it reminds us that redemption is possible. Indeed, redemption is the overriding theme of the entire service. But the service ends a universal note: Aleinu provides a vision of day when all idolatry will end, together with the cruelties and miseries it brings. Aleinu does not paint a future in which everyone is Jewish. Its messianic landscape includes variety – the very same variety God so cherished from the beginning, and insured for the long term when God scattered the people of the Tower (Genesis 11). It is out of the prism of our particular experience as Jews that we come to universal values.
The Yerushalmi (the Jerusalem Talmud) records a disagreement between Rabbi Akiba and his colleague Ben Azzai concerning what is the single great principle on which all of Torah stands.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself (Leviticus 19:18). Rabbi Akiba says: This is a great principle of the Torah. Ben Azzai says: This is the book of the generations of humanity (Genesis 5:1) – this is a greater principle of the Torah. (Jerusalem Talmud, Nedarim 9:4)For Rabbi Akiba, v’ahavta l’rei-echa kamocha, “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” is the principle from which all Torah – ritual requirements, ethical teachings, civil & criminal law – derives. What does Ben Azzai hear in this? He understands that “neighbor” is likely to be narrowly interpreted as referring to the Jewish people. And so he chooses a different verse as the great unifying principle of Torah: This is the book of the generations of humanity, a verse that reminds us of the humanity of every person, each created b’tzelem Elohim (the image of God). Rabbi Akiba is the particularist; Ben Azzai is the universalist.
Which one is right? We don’t have to choose. Neither particularism nor universalism is privileged – we must keep both in balance. Perhaps at times we feel we are walking a tightrope, but it is that balance that assures we become the best Jews we can be and thereby give our best to the world. But we do best when we approach the world-at-large through the lens of our Jewish values and traditions, thereby offering the world the richness of Jewish ethics and spirituality, and approach Judaism with an appreciation for the wisdom that abounds in the world and that can deepen our appreciation of our traditions.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman