By: Rabbi Daniel Aronson
In every synagogue, hanging just above the ark containing the Torah scrolls is a lamp known as the “ner tamid” or “the eternal light.” The ner tamid of the synagogue reminds worshipers of God’s presence in their midst. Today’s ner tamid also provides a historical link between our contemporary houses of worship and the Tabernacle and Temples of biblical times, which housed the seven-branched menorah: the priests of old kindled the menorah’s lamps (ner) perpetually (tamid) so that the menorah, too, could serve as a symbol of God’s constant presence and remind the priests to perform their sacred services with proper intentionality.
While most Jews with a basic Jewish education are familiar with the ner tamid, fewer are aware of a related idea found in this week’s Torah reading: the eish tamid, a perpetual fire. The eish tamid is the fire that burns beneath the altar in the desert Tabernacle’s Tent of Meeting. The fire, which consumes the various sacrifices offered upon the altar, is continually stoked by the priests. God commands Aaron and his sons via Moses: “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it… A perpetual fire (ner tamid) shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out” (Lev. 6:5-6).
In the Torah, the ner tamid and the eish tamid are profoundly dependent on one another: it is with the fire from the eish tamid that the kohanim (priests) everyday ignite the olive oil in the menorah. And it is the light of that ner tamid, the symbol of God’s presence, that ignites within the kohanim the passion to maintain the eish tamid. The two kinds of fire feed on each other. They exist in a symbiotic relationship.
Today we have the ner tamid, but what of the eish tamid? We no longer have the sacrificial system so the eish tamid, which literally fueled that system, is no longer needed. After the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, the rabbis taught that the world stands on three things: Torah, avodah, gemilut hasadim — Torah study, prayer and acts of lovingkindness. These three things replaced sacrifice as our mode of connecting with the divine; the fire of the altar is no longer necessary.
Or is it? I would contend that Torah, avodah and gemilut hasadim require their own perpetual fire, their own eish tamid, and that we must maintain the symbiotic relationship between holy living and keeping God’s presence alive in our world. Unlike the single fire that consumed sacrifices, however, our eish tamid exists within each community and each individual, burning with different colors and temperatures from community to community, from individual to individual.
Our eish tamid is whatever drives us to engage in Torah, avodah and gemilut hasadim. It is that which motivates us to connect with God, and by extension, the Jewish people and all humanity. It could be a love of community. It could be the comfort of ancient ritual. It could be the memory of loved ones. It could be… You fill in the blank.
Whatever “it” is that constitutes a contemporary eish tamid, it must be stoked as never before, especially among Jews of the liberal denominations or no denomination. As the recent Pew Research study has shown (again), the American Jewish community is declining in numbers and the institutions that support the community are declining as well (see http://www.pewforum.org/2013/12/03/infographic-survey-of-jewish-americans/). Fewer and fewer Jews are engaging as Jews in Jewish learning, ritual celebration, Jewish observance, tzedakah (charitable giving), tikkun olam (repair of the world) or those mitzvot (commandments) requiring us to take care of our neighbors. And without Jews “doing Jewish,” it is impossible for us as Jews to do the sacred work of making God’s presence manifest in our world. Without a passion for Jewish life, it is impossible for us to keep the ner tamid lit for future generations.
This Shabbat is Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Rememberance. It is the Shabbat that falls before Purim. On it we read verses from Torah mandating that we not forget to blot out the memory of Amalek, the arch enemy of Israel whose descendants, from Haman to Hitler, arise in every generation. The Torah commands us, thus, to remain vigilant against external forces that threaten our existence.
On this Shabbat of Remembrance, it would be wise for us to remember the eish tamid as well, the fire that ignited the menorah of the Tabernacle/Temples and allowed our ancestor’s to connect to God through sacrifices. Without an eish tamid in our own day, we risk seeing the ner tamid of our synagogues burn out. Indeed, the absence of motivation to engage in Jewish life is every bit a threat to our existence as Amalek and his ilk.
It is my sincere hope that we will not “let the light go out,” to paraphrase Peter, Paul and Mary. May we each rededicate ourselves to keeping the fire within each of us and within our communities alive perpetually.