You command the Israelites that they shall take for me pure, pressed olive oil for illumination, to kindle the lamp continually… Aaron and his sons shall arrange it from evening until morning… as an eternal decree for generations… (27:20-21).
The Almighty suddenly changes the style of command, within the process of giving the instructions for the Construction of the Tabernacle. Whereas in the previous Parasha - and later on in this one - He used ‘ve-asisa’ – ‘you shall make’, in this instance He expressed the much stronger ‘ve-ata tetzaveh’ – ‘you shall command’. Why is the opening of Parashat Tetzaveh marked by this sudden change in language? After all, in Parashat Teruma the Israelites were asked to part with much more expensive items – gold and silver (25:3) very much included. There, He used the softer language – ‘Speak to the Israelites’, rather than ‘Command’.
In discussing an approach to answer this question, it must be noted that the text states that the oil for the Menora had to be absolutely pure. That meant it was forbidden for any sediment or other substances to be mixed in with it. Ibn Ezra comments that the requirement of absolutely purity is a fitting prelude to the selection of Aaron and his sons as Priests (Kohanim). The Kohanim also were required to remain pure and separated from the rest of the Israelites, as no unauthorized person could take part in the sacrifices. In addition the Kohanim had specific duties and prohibitions which reinforced their status and obligation to maintain purity. This is reflected in the Halacha that applies even today which forbids the Kohen to enter the burial grounds other than for the burial of a close relative.
This line of thinking of where the oil represents purity may be extended to cover the idea that the Almighty expects our own thoughts and motives to be pure as well. This may be brought out in the following.
It is well known that when organizations need resources people like to make ‘one-off’ donations. People parting with large slices of their wealth to present a Torah Scroll to a needy synagogue or to construct a new wing to a place of learning or a hospital are performing beautiful acts. Nevertheless, as any fund-raiser knows, it is easier to get money for new projects than for maintaining existing ones. The latter include paying for food for an orphanage in financial difficulties or helping a hospital or other worthy cause to service its debts. These are the day-to-day worries, where lack of help can result in the whole organization closing down.
This idea helps to explain the force of the word ‘tetzaveh’. When the Israelites gave their gold, silver, and other valuables for the construction of the Tabernacle (Mishkan), they undoubtedly took part in a great Mitzvah. However these offerings had certain characteristics. Firstly, they were ‘one-off’ donations. They did not have to be constantly topped up. Secondly they were permanent. Whoever donated had the satisfaction of knowing that his or her personal generosity would be permanently built into the Mishkan.
By contrast the olive oil was temporary. Once it was consumed, that was it. New oil had to be supplied – regularly. As the Talmud points out (Menachot 86a) the preparation of such oil was an extremely laborious process. It had to be prepared and supplied on a regular basis. So the donation of the olive oil was comparable to the less attractive form of giving – to ensure the regular maintenance and functioning a worthy project.
Getting funds for the regular maintenance of the Mishkan was harder than obtaining the initial capital to build it. That is expressed in the force of ‘Command the Israelites’, rather than the ‘Speak to the Israelites’ of Parashat Teruma: it takes more effort to obtain donations that are not perceived as bringing immediate and lasting satisfaction to the donor. Conversely those who did opt to give the oil displayed purity of intention and deed – to give what was much needed at the time it was needed - irrespective of permanence. These donations had the quality of the purity of thought and deed as symbolized by the oil, and as expected of the conduct of the sons of Aaron.
This article is provided as part of Shema Yisrael Torah Network
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