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 Gd's Shabbat); 24:19-20 (the restatement of eye for an eye); and last year , in Mum's the Word, I used the opportunity of 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 )
Worthy subjects all. But this year another bit of text caught my eye. It's a familiar term, ner tamid. Eternal light. Gd commands us to keep lights burning in the Ohel Mo'ed.
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 Gd'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.
Well, this already troubles me. We are so weak-willed that, in the absence of Gd'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) we need this visual reminder of the presence of Gd? I may get lambasted for saying this, but how is this any different from a cross or crucifix hanging in a church? Our faith shouldn't require such reminders. We have enough of them already-as outlined later in Emor - the festivals.
No, I think we've got the idea of the eternal lamp a little mixed up.
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. 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 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 eretz, finding olive trees was probably a little easier, but it still took effort to collect the olives and press them for the oil. And this, too, probably took the effort of many people.
But no so today, and this, I think is what is missing. Imagine, for a minute, a olive-oil burning ner tamid in every congregation. Then imagine that every congregant was required, at some point, to press olives and provide oil for the lamp to keep it burning. That's a lot different than simply seeing an electric light in the sanctuary. It connects the congregation, the community, to the sanctuary, a and thus to Gd.
The eternal light is not the symbol of Gd's eternal presence among us, but rather a symbol of our community effort to follow Gd'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 Gd, and serve Gd, and follow Gd's mitzot. The flame that is kindled upon it is not representative of Gd'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. May this Shabbat be full of the light that burns inside, and the light that shines on us from Gd.
©2001 by Adrian A. Durlester
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