I must admit, when reading this week's parsha I was extremely distracted. The details of the design of the priestly garments and rituals of priesthood were not sinking in, and to be honest, I kind of didn’t care.
I was reading with my TV volume on low (just a habit I have) while it was tuned in to a popular cable news channel. It seemed that every 15 minutes or so a fresh news item would “break” and I’d be forced to look up from the text or my notes. When I tried to put my nose back to the grindstone, I had forgotten where I had left off. Worse yet, when I did pick it back up, I felt slightly “irresponsible” that I was busied with instructions on the application of bells to the base of an ancient robe rather than with the matters currently facing our Nation.
How could I read about the number of stones required for a breastplate when I could hear in the background estimates of the number of people who stand to lose health insurance if certain partisans get their way?
I was getting nowhere.
So, I put down my notes for the night and figured I’d start again, from the beginning, the following evening.
As you all know, at the start of the Tetzaveh, God commands Moses to procure from the Israelites clear olive oil to be used by Aaron to fuel the eternal flame of the menorah. Some interpretations state it was not acceptable that the oil simply be purified or strained before use. The oil must have never been clouded with sediment or pulp.
As for the lighting of the menorah, Rashi commented that the wicks of the menorah were not just to be kindled, but were to be lit and watched over by Aaron until each flame would have the ability to rise up and stand by itself.
The symbolism of light in Torah – especially light among darkness – is ubiquitous. Light often represents God, the capital “T” Truth, wisdom, and even the Torah itself. But, outside of Hanukkah, we don’t often focus on what fuels that light.
This was starting to click.
So, I lowered the volume on the TV some more...
And now I present to you what may very well be the first d’var Torah to equate Tetzaveh with journalism!
If you have been following current events at all, you may have heard the terms “fake news” or “alternative facts” a few times. Or a few hundred times. You may have heard – whether through friends, family, or the media – that we live in a “post-truth” world: an alternate universe where innuendo or unfounded accusations can unleash a fire bigger than any menorah could ever handle.
To draw a parallel to the parsha: consider these current flames of political controversy the by-product of burning impure oil. The confusion and chaos contained in the information coming from all sides has acted as a sort of sediment that is making our “fuel for thought” cloudy and murky.
God commanded his eternal flame to be borne of transparency. Products of our democracy – whether they be laws, opinions, or values – should be formed in a similar environment.
How can we expect anything but an unstable flame that casts all kinds of scary or, at the very least, distracting shadows when we rely on the impure fuel that is misinformation, secrecy, or outright lies? To have a flame – or a Truth – that can rise up and stand by itself, we need to be sure that it is being fed with unadulterated substance and that it is properly tended to. We can’t expect to have a clean-burning, strong and steady beacon rise from anything less.
Without an independent flame, we not only lose a symbol of truth, knowledge and wisdom. We lose our ability to find those things as we are left fumbling without light. This sentiment is echoed in the Washington Post’s recently-adopted motto which ominously states “Democracy Dies in Darkness.”
Which brings us back to Tetzaveh and my TV.
Sure, the media can attempt to act as a gatekeeper or sifter: presenting us with some basic level of clarity on which we can form our own opinions. But remember: filtered oil was not good enough for Aaron’s flame. And filtered news is not good enough for our democracy.