This week's Torah portion, Parashat T'tzaveh, continues the detailed instructions for the building and decoration of the Tabernacle, our ancestors' portable sanctuary during the years of wandering in the desert. Most of the details discussed in T'tzaveh, like bejeweled vestments to be worn by the priests, are exotically unfamiliar to Jews today. But the parashah opens with a description that seems much more familiar to anyone who has spent time inside a synagogue sanctuary. "You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly," God tells Moses (Exodus 27:20). But the last two words — ner tamid — can also be translated as "eternal light."
The light that hangs above the ark in our contemporary sanctuaries, a light which most synagogue custodians attend to diligently to make sure it never goes out, traces its roots to this verse of the Torah. In the age before long-lasting electric bulbs, the priests worked even harder to keep it lit, kindling the lights on a regular basis:
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 27:21)
In our contemporary synagogues, the ner tamid is most often seen as symbolizing God's Presence in the sanctuary. Even if we know the light keeps shining because of a compact fluorescent lightbulb and a dedicated custodian, most Jews I know find a simple spiritual power in that light that never goes out. It answers the question that hovers below the surface of all of our prayers: God, are you really there? The steady, constant glow of the ner tamid answers in the affirmative.
But it's not clear that the ner tamid of our Torah portion serves the same purpose. While the entire Tabernacle is a dwelling place for God, the first verse of T'tzaveh describes the ner tamid not as an answer that God gives us, but rather, as something we give to God, "a due from the Israelites for all time." The light is less a symbol for God's Presence than a requisite for that Presence.
But why would God need this light? God, our Sages point out,1 does not need light to see. Instead, one beautiful midrash suggests that the reason for the ner tamid is both for God and, ultimately, for us, too:
"Instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives . . ." Not because I (God) need it, but so that you should give light to Me just as I have given light to you . . . . This is compared to a blind man and a sighted man who were walking together. The sighted man said to his companion, "I will guide you along the way." When they arrived at their destination and came indoors, the sighted man asked the blind man to please kindle a light to benefit him (the sighted man). In this manner, the blind man would not be overwhelmed by his debt of gratitude to the sighted man, and would recognize himself as capable of benefiting others." ( Midrash Sh'mot Rabbah 36:2)
A person with a disability, the story illustrates, should not look down on himself as dependent on other people, but should recognize that all of us have dependencies — some for guidance while walking outside, others for light to see inside — and also that all of us are capable of helping others. Similarly, the midrash suggests, we should not see our relationship with God only in one way, as meek humanity asking God for what we need. Instead, we should recognize that we have the power and the responsibility to meet God's needs as well.
The theology behind this midrash was famously articulated by the philosopher Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Heschel taught that Judaism is based most deeply not in our human question — "God, are you there?" — but rather in God's question, first posed to Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden and to all of us since: "Where are you?"
"This is the mysterious paradox of Biblical faith," Rabbi Heschel wrote. " . . . the Bible speaks not only of man's search for God but also of God's search for man. . . . It is as if God were unwilling to be alone, and He had chosen man to serve Him."2
We are asked, every day, to find the faith to answer God's eternal question. We are asked, every day, to build a world fit for God to dwell in. We are asked to light the ner tamid, to kindle it eternally.
When we don't have the strength, when we don't have the faith, we might look up at the ner tamid in the sanctuary. Even as we waver, it does not dim. "Yes," it answers God. "Today, yet again, we are kindling the light."
See, for example, Hizkuni on Exodus 27:20
See Abraham Joshua Heschel, God in Search of Man: A Philosophy of Judaism (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux; reprint ed., 1976), p. 136