(20) You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly.
(21) Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.
(20-21) You shall further instruct the Israelites: More literally, “You shall further command the Israelites.” As noted earlier, both the previous weekly portion, Terumah, and this one now beginning, Tetzaveh, provide detailed descriptions of the Tabernacle, but from two different viewpoints – Moses’ and Aaron’s, respectively.
We also noted that the word Terumah means “voluntary offering,” while Tetzaveh denotes a firm and obligatory command. These two portion names likewise reflect the difference between Moses’ and Aaron’s understanding of the essence of human nature (and the role that the Temple plays in human life).
Moses’ approach is based on a fundamental trust in people and in humanity. Moses believes that man, who is by his nature not sinful but righteous, will do everything he possibly can to advance Divine ideals in the world. We only need to explain those ideals to him, so that he knows what is to be done.
Aaron, on the other hand, believes that man’s essential nature is to sin, to stray, and to err, and that without firm orders imposed on him from the outside, he can never recover from his failings. Commandments and orders are therefore a key element of Aaron’s viewpoint.
To bring you clear oil: “Clear” in this context means devoid of any sediment.
Of beaten olives: The process of obtaining oil from olives happens in two stages. First the olives are squeezed, or pounded in a mortar; this yields the highest grade oil, clear of any sediment. At the second stage the olives, including the pits, are ground between millstones; the resulting oil now contains sediment. For lighting the menorah, only the oil of the first stage is suitable, “of beaten olives,” – beaten but not crushed. For the meal offerings (which had to be mixed with oil), the oil of the second stage is also suitable.
For lighting, for kindling lamps regularly: The commentators note that it is usually much easier to collect donations for creating something extraordinary and monumental, than for supporting just the run-of-the-mill daily operations. A monumental creation endures, and can include a tablet listing the names of all the donors, to be viewed by their descendants, who will take pride in the generosity of their ancestors, and its visible results.
But contributions for regular, daily operations, on the other hand, are spent without leaving any lasting, “tangible memory.” People are thus far more inclined to contribute for the exquisite, solid-gold menorah than for the oil that it burns daily with no trace of it remaining. Thus, donations for creating the menorah itself can be collected on a voluntary basis (terumah), but collections to finance the oil must be made mandatory (tetzaveh).
For lighting: Aaron’s primary task in the Temple is thus, in a sense, the kindling of the lamp. This is the very first commandment mentioned in connection with the Temple service, because the true essence of the Temple is not sacrifice, but illumination and enlightenment.
For kindling lamps regularly … from evening to morning: Tamid means “regularly,” not “perpetually without any interruption whatsoever” (indeed, it was normal for the light of the menorah to burn out each morning, and to be rekindled anew later the same day). This meaning of tamid can be seen likewise in the korban ha-tamid, the “perpetual” daily sacrifice offered each day in the Temple (twice each day, actually), as we will read toward the end of this Tetzaveh portion (29:38 ff.).
The menorah was kindled each evening, and it burned until the following morning.
Notwithstanding everything just written about the meaning of tamid, there is in fact an alternate opinion that the central (“western”) lamp of the seven individual lamps of the menorah did have to burn perpetually and continuously, and the remaining six lamps were lit from it each evening.
(21) Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting: Ohel mo’ed, the “Tent of Meeting” is another name for the Tabernacle, which emphasizes that its main purpose is to enable a person to “meet his Maker” even while living right here on this earth.
Outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact: Here the menorah is contrasted with the ark. The ark (God’s voice), located behind the curtain, needs no “maintenance,” for it functions on its own. But the menorah, located “outside the curtain” (and representing the light emanating from the Jewish people’s spiritual activities), required constant care. The priests cleaned the menorah, added oil, and kindled it, all on a daily basis. Similarly, the table required its “bread of display” to be replaced weekly. Spiritual and material success both require constant work.
These two forms of revelation, of the ark and of the menorah, manifest through different channels – the ark through audible sound, and the menorah through light. The task of the Jewish people (the “menorah”) is not to transmit God’s orders in their direct form, but to illuminate the world so that deeper meanings then become visible, thus enabling the peoples of the world to perceive the Divine message. The voice that emanates from the ark cannot be properly understood without the light of the menorah. The Jewish people’s light is of course on an incomparably lower level than that of Divine revelation, but their spiritual light is able, nonetheless, to illuminate the path of mankind with that revelation.
It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages: The priests service the needs of the people, and serve on their behalf. The purpose of priests in Judaism is not to appease God, as other religious systems believed in antiquity, but to create favorable conditions for an encounter to take place between the Jewish people and God.