One of my favorite Chanukah songs is Peter Yarrow’s “Light One Candle,” with its chorus of “Don’t Let the Light Go Out.” Not only do I sing this song at Chanukah, I think about its challenging message every time I enter a synagogue and see a ner tamid. 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, first the Tabernacle and later the first and second Temples in Jerusalem. Since the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE it has been the 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’spresence. 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 electric light bulbs have replaced olive oil but someone still has to change the bulb and someone or some community has to pay the electric bill or the light that has, in Peter Yarrow’s words, “lasted for so many years” will be extinguished.
The Tabernacle described in the Torah was a moveable sanctuary. It did not rest on holy space; instead 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, sometimes out of choice. Yet the miracle of Jewish life has been our capacity to rekindle the ner tamid in new places, thereby keeping the light of Jewish teachings, Jewish celebrations and Jewish commemorations burning bright through both the bright sunlight and the dark clouds of our history.
Rabbi W. Gunther Plaut, in his “Torah: A Modern Commentary,” published by the Reform movement in 1981, quotes the following from the Itture Torah, an anthology of mostly chassidic sources:
“Every Jew must light the ner tamid in his own heart, not only in the Mishkan or Ohel Moed that is in a synagogue or school. The proof text according to this commentary is that the text states in verse 27:21, outside the curtain. The Itture Torah sees this as analogous to streets and market places, in profane as well as sacred places and activities, in all matters relating to both each of us, as individuals, and to all of us as a human community. “
Earlier this week, I participated in the 75th Anniversary of the Jewish Council for Public Affair at a conference in Washington DC. JCPA was created in 1944, the darkest moment of the Holocaust, by American Jewish communal groups seeking a way to shine a light on the extinguishing of Jewish life in Europe and the passivity of the American government response to the extermination of European Jewry. Over the past 75 years JCPA has remained true to its founding principles, bringing together diverse voices of 16 national organization, including the four religious streams and 125 Jewish Community Relations Councils. Our mission is to fight anti-Semitism in America and abroad, and to create a more just and compassionate society here in America. JCPA is committed to keep the light of freedom and justice shining bright.
Over the lifetime of JCPA, America and American Jewish communal life has changed dramatically. The metaphoric lamps, the communal institutions and organizations of American Jewish life that the post WWII generation used to build the communal structure that lit my path to a full American Jewish life for the last 70 years are in the process of being updated, just as the incandescent light bulb has been replaced by halogen lights.
I see a parallel obligation falling on our Jewish communal institutions and leaders. The rabbis of 2,000 years ago, after the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, reinterpreted opening the light of the Menorah, which according to Leviticus 24:2-3 was the ner tamid we are commanded to light in this week’s parsha, with an oil lamp in the synagogues and schools they created. It was in those synagogues and schools that Jews would continue to gather to worship God, and from which we as a community have continually brought Torah and mitzvot out into the world.
Over the past two millennium those synagogues and schools have evolved and changed while remaining consistently grounded in Torah.
In the Passover Haggadah, in a discussion over the changes in Jewish ritual practice, a rabbi of the Mishna, Elazar ben Azaryah, describes himself as “like a man of 70 years old” as he recognizes that change is not only permissible but sometimes necessary. As a 70-year-old rabbi I am more aware each day that while Judaism remains relevant and salient, we have a responsibility to allow the millennial generation the opportunity similar to what my grandparents’ generation gave to my parents’ generation. Those returning WWII GIs created new institutional structures for the continuity of Jewish life. One way to do this is to support the efforts of groups such as Moishe House and Hillel’s Base, both of which are creating amazing outreach programs engaging thousands of Jews in their 20s and 30s in meaningful Jewish experiences across America and around the world.
By supporting both existing Jewish institution and new innovative outreach programs, we can help keep the eternal light of Torah burning continually.
May the ner tamid in our synagogues be a reminder that, as the Itture Torah taught, we can and 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 re-affirm this week, in the words of Peter Yarrow, that we will not let the lights of Jewish life go out.