You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. 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.
Have you ever noticed the light that hangs in front of the ark in a synagogue? It is called the ner tamid, ner meaning "light" and tamid meaning "always." While each ner tamid may be different in design, its function is the same. Also referred to as an "eternal light," the ner tamid is a comforting and constant presence in every sanctuary, throughout the world. Even in an otherwise dark sanctuary, this light gives us a focus, a guide, illumination in our search for Torah and comfort within the darkness. It is like a nightlight for Jews, giving the light we need to find our way through the darkness. It forever provides us with the hope that can sustain us and gives us the courage to continue doing our part to repair the world (practice tikkun olam) and make it a better place for all.
God's instruction to Aaron and his sons to have a lamp burning continually in the sanctuary is found in this week's Torah portion, Parashat T'tzaveh. Later, after the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 C.E., the practice of having a ner tamid in the synagogue became an institution to symbolize the original intent of the Torah command, stated in this parashah.
Beginning in ancient times and still to this day, light has been a constant and important presence in our lives as Jews. References to the concept of light in Jewish life and history are abundant. In Parashat B'reishit, the very first chapter in the Torah, God says: "Let there be light." In the book of Isaiah, Jews are referred to as "a light unto the nations." (Isaiah 42:6) In Jewish ritual, we light candles to mark the beginning of sacred time for each holiday. The whole story of the miracle of Hanukkah hinges on the light that was needed to rededicate the Temple.
The properties of natural light are quite amazing. Even if a thousand candles are lit, no candle is diminished in the giving of its light. Each flame is strong and vibrant. This is also true of the time, experience and love that we give our children. We are not diminished in that task; instead, we are strengthened by the "giving" and "doing." We bring light to them, and they not only return it but also learn to pass it on to others.
The Jewish people have endured for thousands of years through the light of Torah, ritual and community. In this challenging time in the world, it is still our devotion to Jewish values that can provide us with the light to guide us through the darkness and uncertainty. Our children, even at a very young age, can sense our anxiety and insecurity. Just as a nightlight may comfort children in the dark, children look to us for focus, calm, reassurance and safety. As hard as it may be to maintain a brave face in difficult times, we can look to the light of Torah, the rhythm of Jewish time and ritual and the security of our communities for strength and support. The eternal light that burns at the front of our synagogue sanctuaries is a beacon that has carried us through generations-constant, steady and everlasting.
Just as Aaron and his sons kept the ner tamid burning, it is our job as parents to continue to light the way for our children. Through our study and respect for the teachings of Torah, through our acts both large and small, we are able to bring that light into our children's lives. Just as we often refer to our children as "the light of our lives," we provide a sense of light and security for them.
Questions and Ideas for Parents:
- Is there something or someone in your life who is like a ner tamid, providing constant light in your life?
- Can you close your eyes and picture the ner tamid in your synagogue sanctuary?
Questions for Children:
- Why do you think there is a light that shines at the front of the synagogue sanctuary?
- Do you have a nightlight in your room? If you do, why do you like to have it on at night?
- When do you light candles? What are your favorite kinds of candles to light?
Pages 563-572 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition, by W. Gunther Plaut.