A closeup photo of nine lit candles in the darkness.

The guest post below is the D’var Torah that CBI member Ziva Larson offered at Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday, June 17, 2022.

Raise the Lamps

D’var Torah: Parashat B’ha-alot’cha

For our encounter with Torah this evening, I would like to focus on the word that serves as the name of this week’s parashah: בְּהַעֲלֹתְךָ (b’ha-alot’cha).

B’ha-alot’cha — some of you may be wondering: What does that even mean? Let’s start with the ‎שׁוֹרֶשׁ (shoresh), or root, of this Hebrew word: ע-ל-ה (ayin – lamed – hei). The general meaning associated with this root is “to rise,” or “to ascend.” You may be more familiar with another word that contains this root: עֲלִיָּה (aliyah), as in having an aliyah for Torah — coming up, or ascending, to recite the blessings before and after a Torah portion is read. Similarly, b’ha-alot’cha means “in your raising,” or, more plainly, “when you raise.”

For context, let’s read the verses of this week’s parashah in which this word can be found: Numbers 8:1-3.

וַיְדַבֵּ֥ר יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶל־מֹשֶׁ֥ה לֵּאמֹֽר׃

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶֽל־אַהֲרֹ֔ן וְאָמַרְתָּ֖ אֵלָ֑יו בְּהַעֲלֹֽתְךָ֙ אֶת־הַנֵּרֹ֔ת אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה יָאִ֖ירוּ שִׁבְעַ֥ת הַנֵּרֽוֹת׃

וַיַּ֤עַשׂ כֵּן֙ אַהֲרֹ֔ן אֶל־מוּל֙ פְּנֵ֣י הַמְּנוֹרָ֔ה הֶעֱלָ֖ה נֵרֹתֶ֑יהָ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֛ר צִוָּ֥ה יְהֹוָ֖ה אֶת־מֹשֶֽׁה׃

Vay’dabeir Adonai el Moshe leimor, “Dabeir el Aharon v’amarta eilav, ‘B’ha-alot’cha et haneirot, el mul p’nei ham’norah ya’iru shiv’at haneirot.’” Vaya-as kein Aharon, el mul p’nei ham’norah he-elah neiroteha ka-asher tzivah Adonai et Moshe.

“God spoke to Moses saying, ‘Speak to Aaron and say to him, “When you raise the lamps, the seven lamps will give light at the front of the lampstand.”’ Aaron did so; he raised the lamps at the front of the lampstand, as God had commanded Moses.”

Here, Aaron’s raising of the lamps — in other words, his ACTION of lighting the lampstand (the menorah) — completes the story of the Tabernacle’s erection and dedication.

Why is this important? It is important because simply having the lamps and the menorah in the Tabernacle is not enough. Aaron must raise the lamps to the menorah in order for them to give light, to illuminate the space around them, to bring light to the world. Raising the lamps is an ACTION — it is WORK. It is also a commandment, or mitzvah. As we read in verse 3, “Aaron raised the lamps…as God had commanded [him through] Moses.”

So what? How is this relevant to today? It is relevant to today because we, like Aaron, are commanded to “raise the lamps” — to bring light into the world through our ACTIONS. One way we can do this is through tikkun olam, or social justice work; for example, through the work of ALLYSHIP. Like raising the lamps to bring light into the world, allyship involves meaningful ACTION – not just saying or doing something that makes you feel good, but taking ACTION that helps shift the status quo and affects CHANGE.

I’d like to share an example of good allyship, adapted from a story shared on social media by Elliot, a trans person. Elliot writes:

 When I came out as trans in senior year of high school [over 10 years ago], I sent an email to all my former and current teachers as well as the administrators to let them know of my name change and pronouns. The vice principal emailed me, asking me to visit his office.

 I was so surprised to find out that he actually wanted to make sure my name was listed correctly for the reading of my diploma. [Also,] since girls wore white [graduation] robes and boys wore green [ones], he wanted to see if [there was still] time to get me a green robe [instead of a white one]. I was FLOORED by his kindness.

 Trans folks weren’t exactly everywhere. I was the only out trans kid at the time. [The vice principal] was a cis straight man, obsessed with our sports teams, friend to the jocks. I was a nerdy art kid who sent a long email about my gender journey. I hadn’t even THOUGHT of robes.

 My mom was terrified I was going to be bullied. She accepted me but was scared of what others would think. I told her about my vice principal, and she was emotional [about the fact that] someone wanted to take the time to make sure I was respected at my graduation. I had [been debating] not going.

 It turned out the robes had already been ordered…but [the vice principal] made some calls, found an extra one, and ensured that I got my green cap and gown. While my name wasn’t legally changed — so my diploma still had my deadname — he made sure my name was CALLED as Elliot.

 When we talk about treating trans kids with respect, this is the stuff I think about. Not every teacher remembered my name change or used the right pronouns. But, by my vice principal advocating for me, MANY who had felt reluctant before, now fell in line to do the same.

 Sure, I got questions from some kids I barely talked to who didn’t know about my transition […]. But I still […] wore green [like the other boys], and they called my true name. All because the vice principal made the effort to include me.

 Why am I talking about this? Because I just saw a post about the new graduating class [at my former high school] — and they’ve changed the robe colors to ALL be green. They’re not separated by gender anymore. I can’t imagine how much easier that makes it for trans and gender-diverse kids.

 It is not difficult to do the right thing for a trans kid. There was an extra robe somewhere. It was easy enough to write my name down appropriately for the announcer to say. It probably took the vice principal an extra 15 minutes out of his day. It made a HUGE difference to me.

 So — how can YOU make a trans person feel more included at your function, at your school, [and so on]? It takes so little. We [trans and gender-diverse individuals] […] care about being respected.

 When someone takes the lead, others will follow. When you go forward in good faith to include with kindness, others will see that. Just like how one good deed can start a chain reaction. What little thing could make someone feel more included? For me, it was a cap and gown.

This approach to allyship can be applied in MANY other contexts and with MANY other marginalized groups. In EVERY case, it is important to speak up and take action rather than hiding behind nice and well-meaning but empty, noncontroversial, and performative slogans or words and actions that might feel good but don’t actually bring about change. Allyship isn’t about feeling good — it’s about taking action.

That being said, it’s also important to remember that the work of allyship and of social justice in general is not solely the responsibility of a single individual. Making widespread, lasting changes that dismantle structures of systemic prejudice and discrimination requires a group effort. If we return to our Torah portion, we see that although the Tabernacle was completed by Aaron raising the lamps and lighting the menorah, there was still work to be done: the Levites, who were appointed over the holy work in the Tabernacle, then began the work of ritual offerings, of performing mitzvot.

This is a great example of a teaching we find in the Rabbinic literature, in Pirkei Avot:

לֹא עָלֶיךָ הַמְּלָאכָה לִגְמֹר, וְלֹא אַתָּה בֶן חוֹרִין לִבָּטֵל מִמֶּנָּה.

Lo alecha ham’lachah ligmor, v’lo atah ven chorin libateil mimenah.

“It is not your duty to finish the work, but neither are you at liberty to neglect it.”

In other words, while we each do not have to finish the work of allyship, social justice, and tikkun olam/repairing the world on our own, each of us has the responsibility to take concrete, meaningful action to learn about and recognize our own privilege; to work to dismantle structures, policies, attitudes, behaviors, and so on that harm marginalized groups; to help shift the status quo; and to affect CHANGE.

As we enter Shabbat tonight, and as we begin a new week tomorrow evening, I invite each of us to think of one thing we can do in this coming week to “raise the lamps” — to bring light into the world through our ACTIONS. What is one ACTION we can take to help shift the status quo, affect change, and bring light into another person’s life and into the world?

May we all, together, work to “raise the lamps” and bring light into this world.

Shabbat shalom.