Parshat Tetzaveh: Finding the Divine light
This week's Torah portion
Rabbi emeritus, Temple Avodat Shalom, River Edge, Reform
“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling a ner tamid”
The ner tamid of the Bible refers to the continuous fire that 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 Tabernacle in biblical times and the synagogue lamp that 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 “Bnai Yisrael,” referring to we, the Jewish people, have a stated responsibility to God that— in the words of an old “Motel 6” commercial — “we will keep the light on for You.”
While reading the galleys of a book that Jewish Lights will release next month by my brother, Rabbi Mark Borovitz, “Finding Recovery and Yourself in Torah,” it dawned on me that my emphasis upon seeing the ner tamid only as a symbol of our responsibility as a community to open our communities to the transcendent light of God overlooked that it was also a call to each of us to search for the ner tamid, the light of God that is imminent in myself and in every other human being.
The format of my brother’s new book is seven short “divrei Torah” on each of the 54 weekly Torah readings. Each essay poses questions that individuals or groups, can use to see both themselves and God in the text of Torah.
Regarding Parshat Tetzaveh, Mark writes: “In lighting the menorah, we are told that it is to be a ner tamid (an eternal light). This light is to remind us that the covenant between us and God is forever, it is an active part of our daily lives, and the way to bring our living in line with our covenant—that is, to live a life of integrity—is to study and be with Torah. The ner tamid illuminates the teachings and the road map to living with God in God’s world.”
He then asks the following questions:
What is your most precious covenant with God?
What illuminates your path, keeping you in integrity and living well?
What is your practice of study and action that continually adds fuel to your ner tamid?
The greatness of Torah is that it speaks to each of us as individuals and to all of us collectively. My brother’s challenging questions on this parsha point me this week to search for the ‘light” of God’s presence, within myself. He challenges each of us to not only question ourselves, but to recognize that the ner tamid is a source of both illumination and enlightenment. Torah is not only a covenant between, “We,” 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 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 “Bnai 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 opening word of our Parsha, which is “Atah,” “you singular,” in English, that the command to light the ner tamid is one of three places in the sanctuary narrative 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 commanded to not only keeping the ner tamid burning by continually re-creating Jewish community, but that each of us is personally commanded to find the Divine Light within us and to use it to see both the beauty of our individual souls and as a beacon to brighten the world beyond.