This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36.
A Jew walks into a synagogue and looks around.
What can he or she expect to see? An area for prayer that includes an ark that contains at least one Torah. Perhaps a table, a bima, in front of the ark as a focus for the prayer service and the Torah reading. And finally, a light, either attached to the top of the ark or hanging from the ceiling.
The first two items are self-explanatory. We keep our holy Torahs in an ark just as was done in biblical times. The bima, a raised platform with a reading desk, provides a place on which to rest the Torah and from which to conduct the service. We come to the hanging light, called the ner tamid, the Eternal Flame.
What is its purpose? It clearly does not give off enough light to be useful in any practical way. It is not strong enough to read by.
The rationale for the ner tamid is found in this week’s parsha, Tzav (Lev 6:6). “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”
It is mentioned three times in this parsha, a repetition that emphasizes the perpetual nature of this particular flame.
Imagine the work that it took in biblical times to keep a fire burning 24 hours a day — making an altar, gathering wood, cleaning the ashes, the manpower to do it all. It took communal effort to maintain this.
This flame transitions into our ner tamid that is a physical manifestation of what we should already know, that God’s presence is always among and within us, and we just have to be able to see it.
We no longer have the Temple with its menorah and altars and ritual sacrifices. What we do have is community and prayer and places of worship that contain this Eternal Flame.
And for those of us who are not affiliated with a synagogue, or who belong to one that does not have the physical infrastructure to house the Eternal Flame? We find this in Ezekiel 11:16, “I have become to them as a little sanctuary.”
One meaning of this verse is that these little sanctuaries are physical structures, such as the synagogues that were built in exile to represent the lost Temple.
I choose to focus on a different meaning, one that is not about a physical structure but rather a spiritual state.
As individuals, we become the little sanctuaries that carry God’s presence. There is godliness within all of us, a fact that many of us forget. Being human, we need physical reminders of things spiritual.
We circle back to the ner tamid. Just as our ancestors were able to see the flames and smoke coming from the Temple at all hours, we can see the Eternal Flame when we walk into a synagogue, no matter the day or time. Even today, it takes a community willing to raise money and tend to its infrastructure to keep that flame burning. Outside the synagogue, it takes other types of communities, like minyanim and kehilot, to provide nurturing environments to tend to the flame, the spirituality, the little sanctuaries that burn within each of us.
Once, our lives revolved around the Temple. Today our souls live and die together based on the communities that we form and on the caring that we give to one another.
Rabbah Arlene Berger is the rabbi of the Olney Kehila.