The Eternal Lamp

May 20th: Emor
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In this week’s portion, Emor, we read the mitzvah which has developed into the mitzvah of the ner tamid, the eternal light burning in the front of all Jewish synagogues. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Israelite people to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Covenant to burn from evening to morning before the Lord regularly; it is a law for all time throughout the ages. He shall set up the lamps on the pure lampstand before the Lord to burn regularly.” (Leviticus 24.1-4) Though the mitzvah originally called for a menorah of seven lamps to be lit every night (“from evening to morning”), the sacred practice developed into a single light burning all the time in synagogues by the Holy Ark.  (By the way, this week’s passage is a repetition of the original instruction in Exodus 27.20-21.)

As the practice developed, the eternal light has symbolized the eternal presence of God in our synagogues, in our lives, and in the world. It also symbolizes, inasmuch as we are the ones who cause this ritual light to shine, our role in helping that light shine—indeed in spreading the light of God’s wisdom and love to all the world.

In Leviticus Rabba Leviticus 31.4, the Rabbis of the Midrash have an interesting view of God’s intentions for this mitzvah: “As you shine your light on Me, I will shine My light on you,” which Etz Hayim, our sanctuary Chumash, explains in terms of our relationship and reciprocity with the Divine: “As you shine your light on Me (i.e., teaching the world about Me), I will shine My light on you (making you special among the nations).”

 Etz Hayim also has an interesting note on the Hebrew word tamid. The usual translation is eternal, but the modern archeological and historical understanding is that eternal is a mistranslation. The original sense of the ancient mitzvah was that the menorah should be lit regularlyevery single night and not kept burning all the time. Of course, the word tamid also means eternal, and later generations elevated and enhanced this ancient Tabernacle/Temple mitzvah into an even more spiritually meaningful practice. Ours is, after all, a developing and ever-aspiring spiritual enterprise.

Whereas most eternal lights in synagogues have self-contained illumination, ours at Congregation Brit Shalom is a sculpture with three spotlights shining on it (one of which is always on). Apparently there was a significant discussion on this unusual design back when the synagogue was built, but the essential quality of a ner tamid is presented: the light in the synagogue burns eternally to represent God’s eternal presence.

The sculpture itself is the work of the late Rob Fisher, a local sculptor with an international reputation. I never had the pleasure of meeting Mr. Fisher—and asking him about the thinking behind his sculpture, but, when I look at the work, I see the tohu vavohu, the “unformed confusion” of Genesis 1.2 that preceded Creation. One view of the creative process has God wrestling the unformed chaos into form, and I see the light of God shining onto this tohu vavohu, considering, forming, and continuing the Work of Creation. It speaks to me of how the light, wisdom, and inspiration of God work in the world, and I am reminded to do my part in helping.