It is too easy to disconnect from the Torah by “contextualizing” it, by limiting its scope and meaning to the time and place of its origin. But those of us who live by the Torah see in it guidance for all times and places – as applicable today as it was when the Children of Israel wandered in the Wilderness.
In Leviticus, there are two “eternal” commandments for the Temple, things that are supposed to always be present regardless of the season or of any individual who happens to be present. These are the Eternal Light and the Showbread.
What do they mean? They are commanded to us, in Lev. 24, as follows:
And the Lord spoke unto Moses, saying: Command the children of Israel, that they bring unto thee pure oil olive beaten for the light, to cause the lamps to burn continually. Without the veil of the testimony, in the tabernacle of the congregation, shall Aaron order it from the evening unto the morning before the Lord continually: it shall be a statute for ever in your generations. He shall order the lamps upon the pure candlestick before the Lord continually.
And thou shalt take fine flour, and bake twelve cakes thereof: two tenth deals shall be in one cake. And thou shalt set them in two rows, six on a row, upon the pure table before the Lord. And thou shalt put pure frankincense upon each row, that it may be on the bread for a memorial, even an offering made by fire unto the Lord. Every sabbath he shall set it in order before the Lord continually, being taken from the children of Israel by an everlasting covenant.
In order to understand the relevance of these commandments in the present day, we have to first understand them in the Torah itself. They can be explained as follows:
In the first week of creation, the phrase “and it was evening and it was morning” is used to provide “bookends” for each of the days. The verses given above, by using the same words “from the evening unto the morning” tells us that there is a linkage from the eternal light to the days of creation. What is that connection?
On the first day of creation, G-d separated the light and the darkness. He called the light “day” and the night “darkness”. Note, however, that He does not call this separation good. This is a key point, because it indicates to us that our own specific task is to fix that separation!
Our job in this world is to help reunify this gap, to bring light into darkness. And that is why the light is lit “from the evening unto the morning”, to ensure that every person understands that we are not to merely allow darkness to swallow every day. Mankind is not a passive force: we have an active role to play. We are to elevate matter into energy, lighting the oil, healing the chasm between night and day.
What, then, is the relevance of the Showbread? This is a commandment that is linked to each week (as opposed to day), placing the new bread each Shabbos. There are twelve loaves, corresponding to the twelve tribes – or perhaps the six days and six nights (or the physical and spiritual aspects of each of the six days).
But what does it mean to us today?
I think the answer connects back to the nature of bread itself. Among all foodstuffs, bread is quite different from meat (which can be found in the wild) or fruit, which can simply fall from a tree. Bread requires a highly laborious process and dozens of steps from planting to harvesting, threshing, winnowing, milling, baking, etc. And of all the foods, it is bread that is explicitly a partnership between man and G-d, between our efforts and the fruits of the earth, G-d’s creation.
In my home, we have the tradition every Friday night of each person recounting their greatest accomplishment of the previous week – the thing they did of which they are most proud. It could be a kind word or deed, a good grade on a paper, anything that they can look back on with satisfaction.
This is partly what Shabbos is all about: G-d created the world, and then on Shabbos he rested. So, too, all week long we labor, and then on Shabbos we rest from those labors. The commandment of the showbread gives us continuity for each and every week, demonstrating it as the accomplishment for the entire people.
This is the reason for the continuous offerings, the commandments incumbent on the entire nation. We are to remember, thanks to the Eternal Light, that our task is to light up the darkness – in all of its forms. And the Showbread is to remind us that we are to see a weekly cycle of work and accomplishment, partnering with G-d in all of our endeavors. We work with Him to make bread, life-sustaining food for the benefit of mankind. Together, the Eternal Light and the Showbread remind us of the reasons for our existence.