The last third of the book of Exodus is essentially a set of Ikea manuals, complete with pictures, that God gave to Moses and we preserved in the Torah. Ok, so we don’t have “image 1a” exactly, but the Torah tells us that God did reveal images as well as the written instructions and materials needed. And that we do have, starting with T’rumah and continuing on to the end of the Shemot.
But in this week’s parasha, Tetzaveh, we have a break from building manuals. We instead focus 99 verses (Exodus 28:1 – 30:10) on equally detailed instructions for the clothing, purification, and ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests of Israel. But first the portion opens with two little verses with a very big impact.
The Israelites are instructed to bring olive oil “to kindle lights regularly” at the Tent of Meeting from evening until morning before Adonai, a rule for all time throughout the generations of Israel (Exodus 27:20-21). The Hebrew is probably even more familiar: “l’ha’alot ner tamid”
From these verses of Torah, the idea of the Ner Tamid has been ritualized into a special object of great importance. Yet between the possible translations of “l’ha’alot ner tamid” and the nearly non-existent historical information from Iron Age II (1200 – 586 BCE), we don’t even know if the original commandment is to keep Temple lamps lit all the time or only overnight. But by the rabbinic period, the Ner Tamid was established as a spiritual item. Exodus Rabbah interprets it as the divine light which emanated from the Temple (Ex. R. 36:1). The Talmud interprets it as a symbol of God’s presence among Israel (Shab. 22b), and that becomes the primary meaning of the Ner Tamid even to modern times. Ask what single object is the most essential requirement for a Synagogue sanctuary and the answer is the Ner Tamid. The practice has changed over time, as Judaism always does. It has gone from a menorah to a single lamp, and from being located in a niche in the western wall of the synagogue to being suspended above the ark. It has gone from an oil lamp (with the people responsible for the oil, lighting, and upkeep being specially mentioned in the Mi Shebeirach after the Shabbat Torah reading) to a self-sustaining electric bulb. And probably an environmentally friendly bulb at that.
But the core symbolism remains the same as in rabbinic and ancient days: God is in this space. Even when the sanctuary is not in use, even when the building is empty, the Sanctuary is a sacred place where God illuminates our communities. It is eternally sacred, always connected to God’s eternal presence, and so we keep on the Eternal Light.
Two years of covid though, and we have struggled to keep that light on metaphorically and literally. This March 2022 is two years to the month that covid finally hit our communities severely. We canceled some Purim things, but not others. We focused on washing hands and cleaning surfaces. We canceled Shabbat and Hebrew School and events. Eventually we closed our buildings, moved online, and went into lockdown. We wondered how many weeks (ha!) it might last. And now, here we are two years later. From the individual level to the organization level, we have suffered from coronavirus. We have gotten sick, missed out on so many special moments, and lost loved ones and friends. Our lives have been completely changed, especially our community connections and social patterns. Our Jewish organizations and synagogues have suffered. Our buildings were empty, completely, even on Shabbat. For a while, maybe it was only clergy or small groups. And even after we were mostly back and mostly normal, omicron threw us out again. In these two years, our synagogues have been dark more than any period since their construction.
But even through it all, there is one light that never went out. Our Ner Tamid, our eternal light, symbolizing that God is with our community, always. Showing that the strength of our traditions is with us, always. Teaching that the meaning Judaism gives to our lives through Torah can never be turned off and will never go out. The Ner Tamid does not only symbolize that God is always with us. It also symbolizes that we are always with God. Jewish communities kept the Ner Tamid bright in the darkest moments of the last two years. But Jewish values, Jewish practice, and Jewish faith kept the spiritual light on for Jewish communities, families, and individuals. We kept the light on literally and spiritually. May that simple yet impressive feat give us strength to know that we will do so for many years to come. After all, we don’t call it the Ner Tamid, Eternal Light, for nothing.