When the Supply Runs Dry by Rabbi Mark Smilowitz


In the barren wilderness, it might have been appropriate to say, “Olives don’t grow on trees.”  The commandment that opens Parshat Tetzave, to collect olive oil from the Jewish People with which to light the Menorah, was therefore not so simple to fulfill.  The Ramban suggests that the Jews must have had stores of olive oil that they took out of Egypt, and from these stores they were asked to donate for the sake of the Menorah.

What is puzzling is not this commandment itself, but rather its almost word for word repetition in the book of Vayikra (24:1-4).  None of the other commandments regarding the building of the Mishkan are restated, so why does this specific commandment warrant exact repetition in a later book of the Torah?

Ramban offers an approach to resolve this problem, and his solution contains a profound lesson.  In Tetzave, Moshe commanded the people to donate their oil for the Menorah, but the oil was only one of the myriad of items — including gold, silver, copper, wool, skins, dyes, spices, vessels, etc. — that the people donated in order to construct the Mishkan. While the other materials were needed for a one-time use, such as to build an altar or to make the vestments, the oil that was donated was used daily and the supply soon expired.  Therefore, in Vayikra, Hashem repeats the commandment to donate oil so that the consumed supply could be replenished.

The Ramban’s idea corresponds to our observation of human behavior.  One can imagine that during the initial planning of the Mishkan, the feelings of elation and excitement involved in putting up the Mishkan for the first time were strong enough to inspire even the most lazy among the people to donate their time and money to the project.  However, after the initial excitement of the new wears off and the challenges of daily maintenance develop, people tend to lose steam.  “What are they asking for now, more donations?  But I gave already!”  To respond to this human tendency, another commandment is issued, as if to say, “It is not enough to get involved in the building of the Mishkan; all the people are also responsible to keep it running.”

If the building of the Mishkan can be understood as a metaphor for all spiritual endeavors, then there is a fundamental lesson to be learned from the repetition of the commandment to donate the oil.  Have we ever gotten involved in a spiritual project because it seemed worthy at the time but then bailed out because the daily upkeep was too hard?  For example, were we ever inspired to set aside time for learning and then stopped because we found the continuous involvement more than we bargained for?  Have we devoted time and money to a religious institution to help it get off the ground and then moved on to new endeavors and forgotten about the original one?  What we learn from the Ramban is that if we are to see the fruits of the labor which we originally found worthy enough to pursue, we need to be prepared to re-inspire ourselves when the initial excitement wears off and continue to devote our time and energy with the same zeal and excitement with which we started.

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