The ner tamid was a man-made representation of the Eternal; like God’s Presence, it was to be constant and eternal, always and forever...
Long ago, we had a Temple. The Temple, or even the loss of it, does not usually occupy the minds or hearts of most Jews: Its rituals seem foreign to us, part of a distant, forgotten world. And yet, in the instructions for the building of the first Jewish house of worship, there is one word that appears over and over: Tamid – forever. We are told that the bread offering (25:30), the lighting of the menorah (27:20), the clothing of the kohen (28:29,30,38), the daily offerings (29:38, 42) and the incense offering (30:8) are tamid, forever. To be sure, not all the usages of this term are meant to imply permanence; in some instances, tamid means ‘always,’ as in ‘usual’ or ‘constant.’ We might say that tamid means both always and forever, constant and everlasting. And yet, to the modern reader, the preponderance of this word in the context of rituals that fell into disuse thousands of years ago may seem perplexing, even ironic.
On a fundamental level, the Mishkan was a home. It was neither exclusively a home for God nor a home for man, but was rather a place where God and man could live together. It was the place that embodied, captured and recreated the stunning spiritual experience of the Revelation at Mount Sinai, the intersection of human experience and Divine existence. By building the Mishkan, this experience was moved from the mountain to a building specifically built and furnished in a manner that was intended to conjure up that singular event. At the very heart of this new home were the Tablets of Stone, engraved with the words God had spoken on the mountain.
Parashat Tetzaveh begins with the commandment to produce the oil that would be used to light the ner tamid, the constant, eternal flame that was to burn in the Mishkan at all times. The text stresses that this flame is to be not only constant, but eternal, “for all time, for every generation.” This fire, kindled by lighting olive oil in the Menorah, was a reflection of the more ethereal fire in which God had made Himself known to man: Most recently, in the fire that engulfed Mount Sinai as the backdrop to the Revelation, and earlier, in the more private revelation Moshe witnessed at that same location, in the bush that burned but was not consumed, symbolic of the Eternal God. The ner tamid was a man-made representation of the Eternal; like God’s Presence, it was to be constant and eternal, always and forever. Thus, the light kindled in the Mishkan, and later in the Beit HaMikdash, was kindled by the kohen, but was miraculously kept alight by God: This flame, and specifically the “western” light, was miraculously constant (Ramban 27:20, based on Sifri Bamdibar section 59) because it represented the Presence of God – the Shechina, from which the Mishkan draws its name as well as its raison d’etre.
Parashat Tetzaveh commands us to light the Menorah, to bring the Presence of God into our world and to keep that flame, that representation of our constant and eternal relationship with God, alive and alight – at all times, and forever.
Regrettably, our actions can also have the opposite effect, causing the Shechina to retreat and recoil, making it seem as if the light has been extinguished. Rabbinic tradition teaches us that the darkness is no more than an illusion: Even in times of destruction and despair, God’s Presence never leaves the Western Wall, (Bamidbar Rabbah Naso 11) the place of constancy and commitment much akin to the ner tamid, the western candle that was to remain lit forever. Even when the Mishkan or Temple are no longer with us, long after the rituals associated with Temple service are abandoned, the tamid – the eternal aspect of the Mishkan - remains. In a sense, the bush is still burning, Sinai still reverberates with the sights and sounds of God’s presence, the Temple is still full of light. Even though the old “house” was razed long ago, the family remains together, and in every synagogue we leave a ner tamid lit. In the heart of every Jew there is still a place for God, and though the building may be gone, the yearning for God and the sense of His Presence is never extinguished.
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