When non-Jewish groups come to visit our synagogue, they are usually quite impressed with the Ner Tamid (eternal light). They imagine a kind of worldwide Olympic torch relay, connecting Jewish synagogues everywhere. If one torch were to fail, all of Judaism would be threatened. Someone always asks anxiously, “What do you do if it goes out?’
And I always say, “We replace the bulb.”
And then everyone laughs with relief. Because holding in your hands the spiritual health of 13 million people would be a very big responsibility.
Recently, we discussed the Ner Tamid in our bnei mitzvah class. The students said, “You should tell visitors that when we replace the bulb, we first have to light a tealight. Then we hold the tealight up to the socket as we unscrew and replace the bulb. And while we do it, 12 people representing the 12 tribes have to be in the room, chanting 42 prayers for the 42 letter name of God…”
Does our class grasp the metaphorical nature of Jewish thought, or what?
The idea of placing a Ner Tamid in a synagogue has its roots in Parshat Emor. Here, Torah says: Tsav et bnei yisrael, v’yikchu eylecha shemen zayit zach katit la’maor l’ha’a lot ner tamid. Instruct the Israelites to bring you pure pressed olive oil for lighting, to always put up a flame.
It’s a simple, clear sentence. But, in Torah Hebrew, nothing is simple. Tradition regards the words of Torah as the speech of God, and God’s speech as the most multilayered, meaning-laden speech possible. To understand even one sentence of God’s speech, we have to look at it from at least 70 different perspectives.
Our most famous Biblical commentator Rashi looks at this sentence and gets lost in its first word, tsav. Rashi’s mind is drawn to an earlier section of Torah called Parshat Tsav. There, Moshe instructs the priests to keep a fire always burning on the altar. For Rashi, the altar’s perpetual fire and the lamp’s perpetual flame express a single theme. The two instructions should have appeared together. Rashi suggests that something has gone astray in the editing of the Torah.
Almost-as-famous commentator Ramban respectfully disagrees. Rashi, he says, has failed to read the sentence about the Ner Tamid carefully. This sentence does not belong in Parshat Tsav at all. Parshat Tsav instructs the priests, while our sentence instructs all the Israelites. All the Israelites must donate pure olive oil for the communal lamp.
In other words, keeping the flame alive is everyone’s responsibility. A very big responsibility. A community is made up of people, and what we bring to the group makes it what it is.
Yalkut Reuveini, a kabbalistic midrash collection, offers more detail about this responsibility. The Hebrew word maor, used in our sentence to mean “lighting,” also appears in the Torah’s creation story. Describing the origin of sun and moon, Torah says, “God made the two great lights, ha’ma’or hagadol, the big light, and ha’ma’or hakatan, the little light.”
In Kabbalistic thought, light is a favorite metaphor for Divine energy. Thus, the creation story teaches that “God made two great forms of Divine energy, the big one, and the little one.” The big energy refers to the “upper realms,” or spiritual life. The small energy refers to the “lower realms,” or physical, practical life. God animates both realms, as do we. In each realm, we bring the oil for the ma’or.
It’s a very big responsibility.
Simply tending to your own spiritual life is a big job. Staying aware that every creature around you is trying to do the same is a bigger job. Actively supporting the spiritual growth of others is a very big job. I call it “the way of community.”
Laugh, if you like. Tell some jokes about “How many Jews does it take to change a light bulb?” And then, pause to reflect, because holding in your hands the spiritual health of a community is a very big responsibility.
The visitors to our synagogue are right to be anxious. Because if we stop bringing the oil for the ma’or…well, you know what to imagine.