This week’s Parasha Tetzaveh contains the instruction for the Ner Tamid—the so-called “eternal light.” The light of the Ner Tamid symbolizes God’s eternal and imminent presence. We cannot see light. We only recognize light because of what it allows us to see. Perhaps we equate God and light because, “while we cannot see God, we become aware of God’s presence when we see the beauty of the world and when we experience love and the goodness of our fellow human beings.” Etz Hayim Torah and Commentary at 503.
The Sages debate what the word “Tamid” means. We translate it as “eternal,” and since the light bulb was invented, keeping the light lit has made it seem eternal. We don’t usually see our custodians, fulfilling the duty of the Kohanim, changing the bulbs in the synagogues of today. The Sages tell us that the lights in the Mishkan were not necessarily lit at all times. They only needed to be lit from evening until morning—every day. The eternal aspect of the command is that it is “chukat olam” a statute for all future generations. Exodus 27:21.
Is the light bulb in the Ner Tamid good? Was it an advance? Progress? Is technology a good thing?
Maybe it depends on how it is used.
My concern is that we take the Ner Tamid for granted because it is just there. It is a tiny light bulb in an already lit room—people wondering if it really is lit or not. Did you ever do that?
The Ner Tamid used to be quite a big deal because of the effort and expense it took to maintain. How did the Ner Tamid function before the electric light bulb in the synagogues of the not too distant past?
This was actually quite a major effort. We still say a prayer before the Musaf service on Shabbat asking for a special blessing for those who provide funds for purchasing oil for the lamps—now a metaphor for those who support the synagogue and Jewish community in general. The Ner Tamid is the only commanded practice associated with the Mishkan that is still with us today. But if we think about it at all, we may think of having the Ner Tamid to remember the Temple, but not think about what it truly stands for.
I am not advocating going back to an oil lit menorah or Ner Tamid in our synagogues. That would be very messy, cause carpet stains and would probably cause a huge increase in insurance costs.
However, I am advocating greater awareness of the Ner Tamid as a symbol of the special light of God in our lives. There may be times when we cannot perceive God’s light, but we must constantly look for it in ourselves and in each other. The Ner Tamid must burn brightly in each of us.
This Shabbat we learn with Rabbi Aaron Bergman who will teach on “The Synagogue as the Third Temple.” Our Shabbat Torah Study is something many people look forward to every Shabbat—and with very good reason. 10:00 a.m. Come as you are. Stay as long as you like.
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