Have you ever gone through your iTunes collection and done a search for the word, "light?" Give it a try-I'll wait. I wouldn't be surprised if you had at least a dozen songs there that use the word light in the title. I was doing this search just the other day and was tickled by the songs that came up. The first songs to jump out at me were "In the House of Stone and Light," (by Martin Page); "Paradise by the Dashboard Light," (performed by Meat Loaf); and "One Headlight," (performed by The Wallflowers). There were so many songs that had light imagery in their titles; sunshine, fire, brightness, and more. Light is clearly a fundamental theme in our popular culture. When we are sad, alone, or suffering we resonate with themes of darkness. And when we are in love, happy, or celebrating good times we sing about light.
Light was no less a profound symbol for our ancestors. They understood the cycles of the sun and moon, and day and night. Before the joys of electricity, humanity was held captive by the limits of daylight. The activities of the day would have to cease after nightfall due to the limits of fire and candlelight. Nighttime filled many with a sense of fear and vulnerability, as is evidenced by the presence of the Hashkiveinu prayer in our Maariv liturgy: "Grant, O God, that we lie down in peace, and raise us up, our Guardian, to life renewed" (Mishkan T'filah, p. 160).
Darkness is equated with fear and uncertainty, as any of our children could wholeheartedly tell us. Likewise, light is associated with hope, safety, and peace. It makes sense, therefore, that the maintenance of the lights used in the Tabernacle was clearly defined, and that they came to be seen as a metaphor for the Divine. "You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly ( ner tamid). Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Eternal. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages" (Exodus 27:20-21).
Eventually, this lampstand in the Tabernacle transformed into the ner tamid of today's sanctuaries. The eternal light floats above the ark in most synagogues, serving as a visual, tangible reminder of God's Presence. Some are still oil burning lamps, but most are now electric. As a child, I loved sneaking into the darkened sanctuary and seeing the eternal light aflame nevertheless. What otherwise might have been a spooky, dark room to my young self instead felt like it was a space protected by God. That tiny light up at the front of this holy space seemed to connect with the pintele yid, the "little Jewish spark," inside of me.
I know congregants who come to the synagogue just to sit quietly in the sanctuary, and they enjoy contemplating the eternal light as a source of comfort. Once, a girl was in particular distress and I invited her to sit with me on the bimah under the symbol of God's light where she felt much consolation. There's a part of us that needs a visual reminder of God's Omnipresence. In our times of darkness, struggle, or pain, we are most likely to forget that there are many potential sources of light around us. Light wouldn't be such a universal symbol if it wasn't something for which we all search, something that may elude each one of us at one time or another.
Perhaps, as the people who are meant to be or lagoyim, "a light unto the nations," we can dedicate ourselves to personifying the symbol of God's light in the world. Through mitzvot and acts of g'milut chasadim, "loving-kindness," we bring light into the darkness. With love, care, and compassion, we can help those who suffer find a renewed sense of peace.
Chaim Stern writes, "The Rizhiner Rebbe said: Let your light penetrate the darkness until the darkness itself becomes light and there is no longer a division between the two. As it is written (Genesis 1): And there was evening and there was morning, one day."2
May we all remember the light of God and of goodness that burns eternally, even in our darkest moments. May we reconnect with the pintele yid that burns within us. And may we be bearers of light to all. Amen.
- W. Gunther Plaut, The Haftarah Commentary (New York: UAHC Press, 1996), pp. 546−556. Note that I Samuel 15:2-34 is an additional haftarah portion for Shabbat Zachor.
- Chaim Stern, Day by Day: Reflections of the Themes of the Torah from Literature, Philosophy, and Religious Thought (New York: CCAR Press, 1998), p. 134
Rabbi Marci N. Bellows serves as the rabbi at Temple B'nai Torah in Wantagh, NY. She also writes the "Reform, Really" column featured bimonthly on the New York Jewish Week Web site.
The ner tamid, eternal light, is a symbol of the Divine Presence. It is also a symbol of the community, as it is a communal responsibility to keep the light going. The command for the Israelites to bring oil for the ner tamid is given in the Torah using the verb t'tzaveh, related to the word tzav, which means "command" (Exodus 27:20). When we look at the previous Torah portion where commands regarding the Mishkan, or Tabernacle, are given, the verb used is dabeir, "speak" (see Exodus 25:2). Midrash explains the use of "command" as an indication that this instruction is to be followed for all time, not just in this particular generation, (Sifrei to Numbers, Naso, I.II, B)1 and also that the commandment should be followed with enthusiasm, not just obligation (see Midrash HaGadol).2
The ner tamid does not magically happen: it is a communal responsibility. The Israelites worked together to prepare the oil and ensure an ample supply. Thus the ner tamid is a symbol of the power of community, for it is through our connections to one another and our willingness to work together that we are able to bring the light of God's Presence into our midst. This verse reminds us that we should participate in community not only with a sense of obligation, but also with enthusiasm and dedication. While the advent of solar-powered lights and CFLs have changed the mechanics of the ner tamid in most synagogues, the idea is still the same. When we look at this ner tamid, we should be filled with a sense that we should be responsible for this light, for enthusiastically bringing holiness and blessing into our world.
- See Jacob Neusner, The Components of The Rabbinic Documents: From the Whole to the Parts, Volume XII, Part One (Atlanta, GA: Scholars Press, 1998), p. 2
- Midrash haGadol, cited by Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, Part II, (Jerusalem: Haomanim Press, 1995), p. 510
Rabbi Loren Filson Lapidus serves as associate rabbi of The Temple in Atlanta, Georgia.
T’tzaveh, Exodus 27:20–30:10
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 618– Revised Edition, pp. 561–576;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 473–494