Have you heard about epigenetics? I first learned of it in an episode of Transparent— it is the theory, backed by scientific evidence, supporting the idea of inherited trauma. Essentially, trauma transforms our DNA, and therefore the past trauma of our forbears influences our lives even today.
So, think about any traumas that your ancestors experienced. How have those events shaped who you are today? How do you carry them around?
Some of us carry them as heavy weights on our shoulders like a tallit. Did you know that the rabbis thought of the tallit as a yoke? A yoke is that thing that is placed around the neck of an ox that harnesses the power of the beast to, say, plow a field. In fact, the rabbis called the tallit the “ol malchut shamayim” the “yoke of the kingdom of Heaven.” Probably because it symbolized not just the 10 commandments on the tablets but actually all of the 613 commandments found in the Torah.
In this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, we are told that the priests of the Temple were commanded to wear certain garments when they performed the service in the Temple as well. There was the Choshen Mishpat-- the breastplate of decision. They would wear it around their necks, and surely this necklace, made of silver and semi-precious stones weighed a lot. Each stone was to represent another one of the 12 Israelite tribes. And, since the priests were all from the tribe of Levi, if we think about it, they must have experienced some emotional weight along with the physical weight of this breastplate because it was a reminder of their forebear’s attempt to murder his brother Joseph generations earlier. Talk about a heavy burden-- being commanded to bear a yoke carrying the sins of one’s forebears around one’s neck every service!
You see, along with all of the detailed instruction to construct the tabernacle, the Israelites were also instructed to punctiliously create an Eternal Light to illuminate the sacred space. We have our own of course lit here in the ark. This eternal lamp is a reminder that amidst all of these deep and dark feelings, our Creator is here-- bearing witness to all of the weight that we bring on our shoulders into the sanctuary. Thinking about it, I realized that perhaps God can’t take away all of our negative experiences-- to do so would mean that we lived a halcyon life, a life without depth, a life without trials and tribulations -- you know, the kind that shape character. But, perhaps God can remind us that we are not alone. The Midrash in Exodus Rabbah tells us that this Ner Tamid reminds us of the Torah which is there to light our way. It notes that it can be compared to one who stumbles in the dark. The text says: As he feels his way, he comes up against a stone and stumbles thereon, he comes up against a gutter, falls therein, his face striking the ground...but those who are with Torah give l
ight everywhere...though one is standing in the dark, he will a stone and not stumble, he will see a gutter and not fall because he has a lamp with him. (Leibovitz, Nechama. New Studies in Shemot, 515.) In these ways, we acknowledge the weight on our shoulders when we walk into Temple, but also can see the Ner Tamid as a reminder of the presence of God or as a reminder that Torah may help illuminate our paths. May we all be on the lookout for ways to help ease the burdens others carry. Amen!