Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion of Parashat Tetzaveh continues with the rules of how the Israelites should construct the Mishkan. This parasha even gets into the nitty gritty of exactly how the priests should dress when serving in the Mishkan, and how those garments should be made. The parasha opens, as I read, with the instructions for the Ner Tamid.
As I was reading Rabbi Shai Held’s chapter on this parasha from his book, Heart of Torah, earlier this week, I realized something I never really had before. I had always understood the Ner Tamid to be the “eternal lamp,” like our ever-burning bulb above the bima. But it turns out, this tradition that has been passed down through generations and become such a key part to our Jewish structures throughout the world and across eras, is based on a commentary on the Book of Numbers from sometime around the 5th century. The Midrash Sifrei on Parashat Beha’alotcha suggests that “tamid,” “eternal,” means that the Western Light was to burn all the time, and from that lamp, all the other lamps in the Mishkan or the Temple were lit each night. This speculation inspired the Ner Tamid that came to be in every synagogue for the last several hundred years.
However, as Rabbi Held pointed out in his drash on Parashat Tetzaveh, the second sentence of the parasha actually says really explicitly, “Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting … to burn from evening until morning before the Lord.” I suppose I used to read that to mean that at evening and morning they would have to refill the oil to keep the lamp eternally burning, but perhaps it means exactly as it says: the Ner Tamid needed to be lit every night. That’s it’s eternal aspect, every night for every generation. But what if it only actually burned through the night? What does that come to teach us? Rabbi Yehoyada Amir, a contemporary Reform rabbi, shifts the attention from how long the lamp stays lit for, to the act of lighting it, saying, “This is a light that we are commanded to kindle before God in order to express our presence before God, our standing ready to serve as partners in the work of holiness and the work of creation.”
Whether the Ner Tamid burned eternal and from it, all the other lamps were lit nightly, or whether it also had to be lit nightly, it is the physical act of bringing light into darkness, of igniting for ourselves the presence of God in our midst. Remember that elsewhere in the Torah it describes how God led the people of Israel through the wilderness as a pillar of smoke by day and a pillar of flame by night. Despite the instruction to let the flames burn before the Lord, God does not need additional lights for the Divine Dwelling place on Earth. Humans need to do the lighting. Judaism is a religion of action. Our rituals are tactile. More than saying the correct prayers from the prayer book and knowing the Hebrew or using the oldest tunes, we have elements like our kippot, our tallitot, maybe even tefillin for some, our candle lighting every Shabbat and on the eve of every holiday. We are commanded in tikkun olam and constant study. It is never enough to just say words, we must act to bring God into our hearts and homes.
This Shabbat is also Shabbat Zachor, the Sabbath of Remembrance. This is the Shabbat just before Purim, and many synagogues will read a part of Deuteronomy in addition to the Torah portion from Exodus that falls chronologically this week. Deuteronomy 27:17-19 tells us to defeat the Amalekites and to remember to blot out their names from memory. It is read on this Shabbat because it is claimed that Haman, the villain of the Purim story, was descended from Amalek. Just as we remember to blot out the names of the Amalekites, we retell the story of Haman every year, but boo and hiss and shake groggers over his name. It is not enough merely to forget about their existence. We must take actions to continuously blot out their names, as the candle that must be snuffed out. We’ll talk more about Haman and Esther and tell the whole story of the Megillah next week, but I want to mention one more thing - that Esther’s name means “I will hide” or “I will secret away,” and hers is only one of two books in the Tanakh that does not mention God.
The structure of the Mishkan and later the Temple allows for separations, which we see more of as the descriptions of its formation go on. From the Holy of Holies that no one is allowed in other than the High Priest once a year, to the Tent of Meeting that only priests are allowed to enter, to the courtyard where the people may bring their sacrifices, these separations remind us that though God is radically present, God is also mysterious and transcendent. We can approach, but we can never reach God totally. We can light the candles to shed light on some of the mysteries, but we can never see it all. This is why we must act out in our faith and perform radical acts of lovingkindness to bring about Divine miracles. Why we must find the courage of Esther, be each other’s role models and supports like Moses and Aaron. Sometimes Truth feels hidden from us, and the reality is, it is hidden from us. Even when God is radically present in a pillar of flame above the Mishkan, the Israelites still light the lamps around the the Mishkan to feel that connection to the flame, to unveil a little more of the mystery, to try to close a little more of the separation. And even when God speaks to no prophets and makes no promise to save the Jewish people of Persia, they are yet still miraculously saved. May we find God’s work in our own hands, and may we find our hands blessed to do God’s work in the world. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.