In 2001, I wrote a musing entitled “Eternal Effort.” This year, I revisit my thoughts and expand upon them.
Emor is a parasha rich with text to ponder. In the past I’ve pondered 24:22 (one law for proselyte and native born;) 23:3 (wherever you live, it is G”d’s Shabbat;) 24:19-20 (the restatement of eye for an eye;) and 21:17ff, the concept of mum-imperfection to discuss the subtle discriminations many of us face in life and society. (You can read these past musings at my web site www.durlester.com )
This year, I focus on 24:1-4.
Every synagogue has one. The “ner tamid,” the “eternal light.” That concept comes from this parasha, in particular these words:
וַיְדַבֵּר יְהוָֹה אֶל־מֹשֶׁה לֵּאמֹֽר: ב צַו אֶת־בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל וְיִקְחוּ אֵלֶיךָ שֶׁמֶן זַיִת זָךְ כָּתִית לַמָּאוֹר לְהַֽעֲלֹת נֵר תָּמִֽיד: ג מִחוּץ לְפָרֹכֶת הָֽעֵדֻת בְּאֹהֶל מוֹעֵד יַֽעֲרֹךְ אֹתוֹ אַֽהֲרֹן מֵעֶרֶב עַד־בֹּקֶר לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה תָּמִיד חֻקַּת עוֹלָם לְדֹרֹֽתֵיכֶֽם: ד עַל הַמְּנֹרָה הַטְּהֹרָה יַֽעֲרֹךְ אֶת־הַנֵּרוֹת לִפְנֵי יְהוָֹה תָּמִֽיד
1 The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:
2 Command the Israelite people to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. 3 Aaron shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain of the Pact [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord regularly; it is a law for all time throughout the ages. 4 He shall set up the lamps on the pure lampstand before the Lord [to burn] regularly.
It’s a familiar term, ner tamid. We understand it these days as the Eternal light that burns in every sanctuary. Now that the Ohel Mo’ed, and it’s replacement, the Beit Hamikdash, are no more, we equip our synagogues with these “eternal ” lights. We’re taught that the light signifies G”d’s presence in these holy places. Rashi and the rabbis seem to favor this interpretation in reference to the ner tamid in the ohel moed and beit hamikdash. We’ve just carried the tradition on.
A closer inspection of the text reveals that the term tamid is used here (as it is elsewhere) to denote something done with regularity. The lights on the menorah in the Ohel Mo’ed were lit daily, and were not kept perpetually burning.
This rationalization of the presence of our modern ner tamid troubles me. Are we so weak-willed that, in the absence of G”d’s direct action through miracles in the world (or at least our perceived absence of such miracles-but that’s a whole other discussion for some other time) that we need this visual reminder of the presence of G”d? I may get lambasted for saying this, but how is this any different from a cross or crucifix hanging in a church? Our faith need not require such reminders. We have enough of them already-as outlined later in parashat Emor – the Shabbat and festivals.
No, I think we’ve gotten the idea of the eternal lamp a little mixed up. The lamps ought not to be reminders to us of G”d’s presence, rather they should be reminders to us of our obligations to G”d and our sacred communities. As they exist, as we have created them, they do not fulfill this function.
The problem is, our eternal lamps don’t need us. We make them electric and they burn until the bulb blows out and the janitor replaces it. Or they utilize natural gas, or propane. Not much involvement on our part there, except to look at it.
But keeping a lamp continually lit, indeed, keeping the other lamps on the menorah lit, even if not continually, probably took a lot of olive oil. And not just any old olive oil, but pure (zakh) olive oil. And olive oil wasn’t just something the people got from their local grocery. No, making that oil was a community obligation. And finding those olive trees in the wilderness? Now that must have been some feat. Quite the community effort, I imagine.
Once settled in haeretz, finding olive trees was probably a little easier, but it still took effort to collect the olives and press them for oil, and especially the pure oil required for this purpose, from the first pressings. And this, too, probably took the effort of many people. Fewer, perhaps, than when we were wandering the wilderness, and fewer and fewer every year decade, century, as the process became centralized and the province of particular craftspeople or families, as the ancient 1% built their personal wealth at the expense of the ancient 99%.
Today, there is no direct involvement of anybody except the janitor or shamash – our participation is what is missing. G”d, supposedly, keeps the lamp lit, but we all know the elephant in the room. The ner tamid is fueled not by G”d, but by electricity, or gas, and is tended not by G”d but by an employee of the synagogue. Yes, some synagogues have their ner tamid We’ve probably all seen a ner tamid that was not functioning, or goes out during a service. Perhaps we’ve been in one of those “let’s turn this place into a sanctuary” situations where a aron hakodesh is brought into a space, with an attached ner tamid that has to be plugged in. Sometimes, it even gets forgotten. (Or the irony of ironies, when it gets plugged in our turned on after services have started . Even if your congregation allows switches and electricity and instruments, etc. to be used on Shabbat, it is jarring to see a ner tamid suddenly turned on in the middle of a service, and not by Divine hand!
So imagine, for a minute, if you will, a olive-oil burning ner tamid in every congregation. Then imagine that every single congregant was required, at some point, to press olives and provide pure oil for the lamp to keep it burning, and tend to it. That’s a lot different than simply seeing an electric light in the sanctuary. It connects the congregation, the community, to the sanctuary, and thus to G”d.
The eternal light is not the symbol of G”d’s eternal presence among us, but rather a reminder of our community’s obligation to follow G”d’s laws and praise and honor Gd. It’s a symbol of what we are supposed to do, not a reminder that the One who we already know is always there is always there.
It’s a reminder that we have to make an effort, an eternal effort, to acknowledge G”d, and serve G”d, and follow G”d’s mitzvot. The flame that is kindled upon it is not representative of G”d’s presence, but rather, representative of the work that we do to keep our part of the covenant.
It’s our ner tamid. The symbol of what burns inside us. We are, each of us, all of use, a ner tamid. May this Shabbat be full of the light that burns inside each of us, all of us, and the light that shines upon us from G”d.
©2012 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other musings on this parasha:
Emor 5771-B’yom HaShabbat, B’yom HaShabbat
Emor 5770 – G”d’s Shabbat II
Emor 5767-Redux and Revised 5761-Eternal Effort
Emor 5766 – Mum’s the Word (Redux 5760 with new commentary for 5766)
Emor 5765-Out of Sync
Emor 5764-One Law for All
Emor 5763-Mishpat Ekhad
Emor 5758-Gd’s Shabbat
Emor 5759-Lex Talionis
Emor 5760-Mum’s the Word
Emor 5761-Eternal Effort