Exodus 27:20 – 30:10
Rabbi Arthur Lavinsky shares a story once told by Rabbi Sidney Greenberg about a time he brought a group of Kindergarteners into their synagogue sanctuary. Rabbi Greenberg pointed to the Ner Tamid and asked if any of the children could tell him what that was. One little go-getter raised his hand and said confidently: “That’s the INTERNAL light.”
Although the answer was technically incorrect, the insight was spectacular. The Ner Tamid is the ETERNAL Light, commanded in this week’s Torah portion, which must be placed in the tabernacle outside of the curtain over the ark. It is called “Eternal” because we must never let the light go out. Every synagogue in the world has a Ner Tamid over its ark, and it has come to symbolize both the presence of God, and the need for our constant effort to bring and maintain God’s presence in our midst.
The young boy in Rabbi Greenberg’s synagogue missed that point but stumbled across something beautiful: not only do our sanctuaries contain a special light, but each of us also contains a special light. Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great kabbalist, taught that in creating the universe, part of God was splintered into countless tiny divine sparks. This is the source of the term Tikkun Olam, which means repairing the universe. One tradition teaches that every time a Jew performs a mitzvah a spark is reunited with its Source, and the universe is healed just a little bit. However, a second tradition says that each spark is a human soul, that each of us contains a tiny spark of the Divine within. In other words, we all have Internal Lights. We are simultaneously part of what is broken in the cosmos, and part of the Divine, and we have the power to heal.
The mystics teach that the light within needs both our attention and our care, and that with the effort of study, prayer and the performance of mitzvot that we can make the spark glow brightly and even grow. I would add acts of gemilut hasadim to the mix – acts of love and compassion.
The rabbis were right to require a Ner Tamid in every synagogue. We need both the light and the reminder so that we continue to renew the holiness within our communities. The Kindergartener who called it an Internal Light was also right. We have internal lights as well, which we must nurture to bring out the holiness and human potential within us.
If we tend to both, well then, who knows what we can become?
Hi there! I am the senior rabbi at Temple Beth Ami in Rockville, Maryland, where I have served since 2016.
(c) copyright 2018 by Rabbi Gary Pokras