One of my favorite Chanukah songs is Peter Yarrow’s “Don’t Let the Light Go Out.” I not only love to sing this song at Chanukah time but I think about its challenging message every time I enter a synagogue and see a ner tamid burning. While it was the Chanukah menorah that inspired Yarrow’s song, I find its call to keep the light of God’s presence and the presence of the Jewish people burning bright to be particularly relevant on this Shabbat Tetzaveh, where our Torah portion begins with the command to Moses: “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 that symbolized God’s presence in first the 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 that carries its name today are the symbol of God’s presence. However, the presence of a ner tamid, an eternal light, is also an affirmation 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 or the light that Peter Yarrow sings about “that has lasted for so many years” will be extinguished.
The Tabernacle described in our Torah readings from this week until the end of the Book of Exodus was a moveable sanctuary. It did not rest on holy space, but rather its presence transformed the earth beneath it into a holy place. Similarly, the history of diaspora Jewry is an account of sanctuaries that have been built and abandoned, sometimes out of necessity and sometimes out of choice. Yet, the miracle of Jewish life has been our capacity to rekindle the ner tamid in new places and to keep the light of Jewish teachings, celebrations, and commemorations burning bright through both the dawns and dark clouds of our history.
The No. 1 topic now facing all Americans, individually and communally, is the economic crisis. Keeping the heat on and preventing the lights from being turned off are very real issues for many people in our northern New Jersey community. They are also issues for our own Jewish communal institutions. Calling upon all of us who can increase or at the least maintain our level of support to our synagogues, JCCs, and Jewish federation is certainly appropriate at this time. I also see a parallel obligation falling on our Jewish communal agencies and upon my fellow rabbis and Jewish communal leaders, both lay and professional, to ask ourselves how we can learn to work better together; how we can “L’haalot” – lift ourselves up above our parochial and personal agendas and ask each other how can we work better together for the benefit of Klal Yisrael?
One example of working better together will be celebrated this Friday night, March 6, when I will be officiating at a Service of Unification formalizing the coming together of Temple Avoda of Fair Lawn and Temple Sholom of River Edge. We are now officially a new united congregation that will henceforth be known as Temple Avodat Shalom. While we will be physically remaining within the walls of what was Temple Sholom of River Edge, we are committed to integrating the traditions and the strengths of both congregations. The ner tamid of Avodat Shalom will burn bright because the members of both communities are bringing the fuel of their hearts, souls, and resources together to create a brighter and more vibrant Reform Jewish presence to our community, while committing ourselves to maintain the warmth of fellowship that has been characteristic of both congregations during their more than half century of existence.
Working better together either through mergers or through better cooperation between institutions, such as the Kehilah Partnership where 10 synagogues and the YJCC are today providing innovative cooperative educational programming, is a way for us to not only keep the lights on during tough economic times but also a way for us to keep the eternal light of Torah burning continually. May the ner tamid in our synagogues be a reminder that we can and that we must transform the fire of our faith into a source of light and enlightenment by which we can see the way to continually be God’s partners in the repair of the tears in our own lives, in our community, and in our world. Let us all reaffirm this week in the words of Peter Yarrow that we will not let the lights of Jewish life go out.