Exodus 27:20 – 30:1
Walk into any synagogue sanctuary, anywhere in the world, and you will find a ner tamid, an eternal light placed somewhere over the ark.
To understand why we need only look at the opening verses of our parasha. God commands a chukat olam, a law for all time that the priests keep a light perpetually lit (ner tamid) by the curtain that covers the ark in the Tent of Meeting. (Ex. 27:20-21)
Why, when most every aspect of the sacrificial rites are ancient history, does this commandment persist? What about the ner tamid has so captured our imaginations?
The Talmud emphasizes what Torah teaches: that the ner tamid brings the Divine presence to dwell with Israel. A synagogue is not a Motel 6 - it is not enough for us to say to God, “we’ll keep a light on for you.” This is why the Talmudic rabbis also state that the light is not for God, but for us. In every generation we need to keep a ner tamid for our own sakes. (Talmud Bavli: Menachot 86b).
Before the advent of electricity, maintaining the ner tamid was no easy task. Only the purest and most carefully prepared olive oil could be used, and the flame needed to be constantly tended. In part this is what drove the Jewish revolt against the Assyrians - the fact that the flame that must always burns had gone out. When the Hasmoneans of Hanukkah fame retook the Temple, they immediately set out looking for the special oil for re-lighting the lamp, yet there was only enough oil for one day …
Today, most synagogues use electricity or propane to keep the light lit with relative ease. However, the ner tamid still reminds us of a fundamental truth: bringing the Divine Presence into our lives takes real effort.
As you might expect, this is only part of the picture, so let’s take a closer look at the Hebrew text. The commandment is l’ha’alot ner tamid (to cause the ner tamid to ascend). We must not only keep the fire burning, but we must help raise up the light. In the Talmud, the rabbis interpret this to mean that we must construct the wicks so as to make the flame ascend by itself, rather than by any other means. (Talmud Bavli: Shabbat 21a).
Taken all together, we are left with an extraordinary concept. Just as God worked to create space for us in the midst of Creation, we must work to create space for God in the midst of our communities. Just as God set us in motion, but allows us free will – we construct the Eternal Light so that the Light of God takes on a special ascending life of its own. Even more, this is a re-enforcing cycle. The more we work to bring God into our midst, the more connected to Creation we become. The more sensitive and aware we become to our place in Creation, the more we bring God into our midst.
The ner tamid is far more than a symbol, it is a call to action.
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