“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling a Ner Tamid” (Exodus 27:20)
The Ner Tamid of the Bible refers to the continuous fire which symbolized God’s Presence in the portable Tabernacle, and later the First and Second Temples in Jerusalem. Since the destruction of the Temple in 70 C.E., it has been a custom that a Ner Tamid, an Eternal Light, shines in the sanctuary of every synagogue. Both the continuing fire that burned in the sanctuary in Biblical times and the synagogue lamp, which carries its name today are the symbol of God’s Presence.
In looking back upon the many divrei Torah I have written on this parsha, I found that the most recurring theme for me has been my understanding that the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light, is not only an affirmation of the Presence of God, but also a confirmation of the presence of a Jewish community. If there are not Jews tending to the Ner Tamid, the light will go out. In biblical days someone had to bring the oil. In modern times, where electric light bulbs have replaced olive oil, someone still has to change the bulb and someone or some community has to pay the electric bill. For me, the emphasis in the opening verse of our Torah portion has been that “Bnei Yisrael,” referring to we the Jewish people, have a responsibility to promise God that “we will keep the light on for You,” in the words of Tom Bodett’s old Motel 6 commercial.
Two years ago, Jewish Lights published a book of short divrei Torah by my brother, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, “Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah.” Mark gives the reader seven short divrei Torah on each of the 54 weekly parshiot. In one of his short drashot on Tetzaveh, my brother quotes the opening verse of our parsha (27:20), and focuses on the idea that the oil comes from “beaten olives,” a phrase indicating that only the oil and not the pulp of the olive is used in lighting the Ner Tamid. Mark continues by suggesting that the light of the Ner Tamid is a metaphor for the light of God within each of us. Just as the Ner Tamid required oil that was separated from the pulp of the olive, we each need to separate out the spirit of God within us from the pulp that clogs our spiritual veins and arteries preventing the free flow of God’s spirit within us. Mark then asks the question of his readers: “What schmutz do you have clogging up your spiritual arteries?”
As I think about seeking an answer to my brother’s question I am becoming aware that the Ner Tamid, which I have always look at as a symbol of our responsibility to open our communities to the transcendent light of God, is also a call to search for the Ner Tamid, the light of God, that is imminent in myself and in every other human being.
The greatness of Torah is that it speaks to each of us as individuals to search for the light of God’s Presence, within myself, while simultaneously commanding we as a community to keep the light of God’s Presence burning brightly in our midst. The Ner Tamid is a source of both illumination and enlightenment. Torah is not only a covenant between the people and God, but simultaneously a contract between every individual, every “me” and God.
The challenge for 21st century Judaism is to teach that there is a powerful truth in the fact that the parsha begins with “atah,” the singular form of the second person pronoun. “Atah titzvaveh” — you, each of us, is commanded to use the Ner Tamid, the light of God’s Presence, as both a flashlight to illuminate our search for God within us, and as a beacon to see God’s Presence in the world beyond us. Moreover, each of us is commanded to not only see this as a responsibility of “Bnei Yisrael”, the community as a whole, but also, as a personal obligation. Sforno, the great Italian Jewish scholar of the 15th century, confirms this last challenge, in his commentary on the word “atah” with which our parsha opens. He notes that this is one of only three places in the Torah narrative on the building of the sanctuary where Moses is commanded to do this mitzvah himself, rather than merely delegate its fulfillment to others.
Sforno’s commentary from half a millennium ago, and my brother’s message after thirty years of using Torah as a lamp to light the path to recovery from addiction for himself and thousands of other Jews, teach me that you and I are Tetzaveh, commanded to not only keep the Ner Tamid burning by continually recreating Jewish community, but that each of us is personally commanded to find the Divine light within us and to use it both as a mirror to see the beauty of our individual souls, and as a beacon, to brighten the world beyond.
In a time when our world and our nation are darkened by clouds of social and political upheaval, attempting to eclipse the light of the Divine, when on this Shabbat Zachor we are reminded of the foreboding presence of Haman-like Amalekites threatening our very existence, the command to light the Ner Tamid here in Parshat Tetzaveh reminds me that as powerless as we often feel to make a difference in our world, we actually can if we just keep the Light of God shining through, not only for ourselves but for future generations.