This week’s Torah portion is Tetzaveh, Exodus 27:20 – 30:10.
On Yom Kippur morning when I was 8 years old, my parents told me that our synagogue experienced a power failure the previous evening, during Kol Nidrei services. All the lights went out, they said. I blurted out, “Even the Eternal Light?”
My dismay reflected the lesson I had learned that the Ner Tamid should always stay lit, even when all the other lights in the synagogue were turned off. Somehow, I couldn’t envision a time when it would not be.
The image of the Ner Tamid is introduced in the first verse of this week’s Torah portion. The Ner Tamid is one item, along with the ark for the Torah scrolls, which defines a room as a synagogue.
The first Ner Tamid stood in the Mishkan, the movable sanctuary which the Israelites carried during their trek through the wilderness of Sinai, and later in the Temple in Jerusalem. The Torah says it was fueled by pure olive oil. There were alternative fuels in biblical times, such as sesame seed oil and flax seed oil. Unlike those, olive oil can be refined until it is pure, burning without any ash or smoke.
Moreover, the olive tree is a symbol of peace. Olive trees take a long time to grow and bear fruit. Prolonged siege or armed conflict will prevent farmers from tending to the trees and their crop. Indeed, they can grow only during extended periods of peace, free from war or natural disaster. Olive trees can grow for centuries, so they also convey an image of longevity.
The symbolism of the Ner Tamid extends beyond the oil that is used for fuel. In several places in the Torah, as well as in the Talmud, we learn that the kohanim (priests) were responsible for making sure that the flame stayed lit. This responsibility was so important that it was the first task the priests were to perform each morning. This implies that without the Ner Tamid, none of the worship on weekdays, Shabbat or holidays could be completed.
This awesome responsibility conveyed another symbolic message: God’s eternal presence is represented by light. Kindling the Eternal Light represented human efforts to bring the reality of God into the world. The pureness of the olive oil, combined with the diligence of the priests to maintain the flame, tells us that performing good deeds with a pure heart will help insure that God’s presence will be felt in our lives and throughout the world.
Today, almost every synagogue’s Ner Tamid is electric. Before humans harnessed electricity, it’s likely they used candles, chain lighting a new one when the previous day’s candle was about to burn out. It obviously required much more effort than we exert today.
I think the message from those earlier days can be incorporated into our own Jewish practices. That is, rather than taking the performance of mitzvot for granted, we should exert energy in the performance of each one. By mindfully doing good deeds, and doing them on a daily basis, we can ensure that the eternal light of God’s presence will shine throughout the world.
Questions for discussion
Why is the Ner Tamid such a powerful symbol? Where have you seen it used outside the context of a synagogue?
What effort can you exert to bring more meaning to performing mitzvot? Could that be an enlightening
What would you do if the Ner Tamid went out?
Rabbi James R. Michaels is director of clinical pastoral education at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities.