Emor is a parasha rich with text to ponder. 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); the fixed times (23:1-44); and last year, an updated version of "Mum's the Word," exploring the concept of mum-imperfection to discuss the subtle discriminations many of us face in life and society. (You can read these past musings using the links at the end.)
Worthy subjects all. But this year another bit of text caught my eye as it had done 5 years ago. It's a familiar term, ner tamid. Eternal light. G"d 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 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.
Well, this already troubles me. We are 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) 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 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, and thus to G"d.
The eternal light is not the symbol of G"d's eternal presence among us, but rather a symbol of our community effort to follow G"d's laws and praise and honor G"d. 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 mitzot. 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.
At this point, I think I ought to interject that calling the Ner Tamid an "eternal light" is probably somewhat of a mistranslation. The general meaning of "tamid" is more like "regularly" or "routinely." How might this change our understanding?
Throughout sefer Vayikra (Leviticus) we've been concerned with sins, iniquities, and how we atone for them. There's a basic assumption in this - that we will sin, whether purposefully or inadvertently. Just as it would be difficult to keep the lamps in the Ohel Mo'ed (Tent of Meeting) burning continuously (and most scholars believe they simply burned from morning to night, and were rekindled each day) so, too, is it difficult for us to always be shining brightly with the light of Torah within. Just as we need to rest every 7th day (even G"d needed that rest) we may need to rest ourselves each day from the difficult work of trying to live by G"d's commandments. If we truly spend all day wrapped in the study of Torah, then when will we eat? How will our laundry get done? Who will do our work for us?
No, I don't believe the object is to shine "eternally." Besides, if we do, we're likely to exhaust the light sooner. The object, and it could even be harder than simply shining all the time, is to rekindle in ourselves each day that light. This allows the light to last longer, and perhaps allows us the needed time to recharge ourselves.
Regularity in kindling our internal light means regularity in ethical behavior, compassion, in keeping the mitzvot. That is what we should strive for. I doubt there are any among us who can truly do that "eternally."
As the ner tamid is a symbol of our community effort to follow G"d's mitzvot, perhaps it ought not to be shining when the community is not present. Imagine suggesting that to your synagogue. Let's turn it off when we're not there. (Of course, there are some penny-pinchers on the Board who would probably love that idea.
Or imagine a more inventive scenario, in which the ner tamid in a sanctuary is somehow connected with each member of the community. The more active they are in following the guiding principles of our faith, the brighter the light shines. Hmmm. Sort of a communal "mood ring."
(By the way, as an aside, I wonder how many synagogues have replaced the bulb in their "ner tamid" with a new, environmentally-friendly CFC bulb?)
It's our ner tamid. The symbol of what burns inside us. As long as it shines "regularly" we can feel good about ourselves. It need not shine "always" or "eternally." May this Shabbat be full of the light that burns inside, and the light that shines on us from G"d.
©2001 and 2007 by Adrian A. Durlester
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
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