Just say ‘yes’

Just say ‘yes’

Beha’alotecha | Numbers 8:1-12:16

We all know people whose natural inclination is “No.” They avoid setting precedents, take no chances, squelch initiative. But the Jewish people did not make it this far by saying “No” to everything. We made our mark by a repetitive and massive “Yes.” 

The idea goes back to a radical rabbinic reading of our parsha, where Moses tells Aaron how to arrange the lights in the desert sanctuary, “and Aaron did so. He mounted the lamps as God had commanded Moses.” Why the redundancy? 

The original Hebrew is critical. The word for “so,” ken, appears almost daily in the story of creation, where we are told, vay’hi ken (“It was so”). The rabbis read ken not simply as “so,” however, but as a noun referring to an actual quality in the universe called “ken.” When, therefore, we read vaya’as ken (“[Aaron] did so”), we should understand more than that he simply did as he was told; Aaron was really adding to the world’s store of ken

What, then, is ken, and why was it left to Aaron to add the last bit of it after the tabernacle was finished?

The kabalists observe that the only thing about which Genesis does not say “vay’hi ken” is the creation of light on the first day. That, they explain, is because the light God created then was not the sun and stars (created three days later) but the primeval light called ken, whence truth, justice, and holiness descend. The world was still untried, however. Worried that the generation of the flood, for example, might misuse the light, twisting its truth, perverting its justice, and trashing its holiness, God set it aside for a future moment when Israel would be mature enough to guard it. That is why the psalmist says, “Light is sown for the righteous”; it is reserved for the “righteous of heart” someday “to rejoice in it.” (Psalms 97:11)

Aaron was not just preparing lights. He was rescuing ken from its hiding place that it might shine like a beacon of hope from the desert sanctuary. It was later transferred to the Temple in Jerusalem, and when that fell, Jews carried it wherever they went as the eternal light, making synagogues into guarantors of truth, justice, and holiness — of hopeful “Yes-saying,” that is. 

The eternal light over our arks is the ken that God set aside and that has traveled with us through time. Often over the arks are biblical verses or rabbinic adages, like “Know before whom you stand.” But the eternal light above the scrolls provides its own message — a simple but resounding “Yes!”

This “Yes” is the quintessential Jewish outlook on life. Despite all hardship, in the face of world history, and regardless of the morass into which our all-too-human institutions inevitably slide, Jews believe the universe is inherently charged with affirmation — the quality of “Yes.” 

Maybe it all started after Shavuot, when we realized we had been given a gift of Torah and took it — with an everlasting “Yes.” 

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