a continual flame
This week’s Torah portion opens with a description of the Ner Tamid, the perpetual light that burned in the Tabernacle and later in the Temple. As a memorial of this continual light, at the front of synagogues around the world there is continuously burning lamp, a Ner Tamid, until this day.
Why, of all the implements of the Temple, should this be the only one that we find in synagogues around the world today? And why is this Torah portion the only one in the entire Bible, since Moses was first mentioned, in which his name does not appear?
It is fitting that the Ner Tamid should survive in our synagogues today, because, more than any other item in the ancient Temple, the Ner Tamid is associated with the idea of Jewish continuity and the passing of the flame of tradition from generation to generation.
Different commentators see this theme of continuity reflected in different aspects of the holy lamp.
Some traditions focus on the oil to be used in the lamp: the Bible commands that it is only to be lit with pure olive oil. The Talmud sees the olive tree as a symbol of a divine promise of the survival of Jewish people:
R. Joshua ben Levi taught: Why is Israel said to be like the olive tree? To tell you that just as the leaves of an olive tree fall neither during the summer season nor during the rainy season, so Israel will never cease to be, neither in this world nor in the world-tocome. ( Babylonian Talmud, Menachot 53b )
Others focus on the light itself. The Pardes Yosef (Rabbi Joseph Patznovsky, writing in Poland in the early 20 th century) sees the Ner Tamid as an external expression of an internal spiritual light, to be handed down to future generations. He writes:
Every Jew must light within his own heart a ‘Ner Tamid ’, a lamp to the Lord. But this light does not need to stand only in the Tent of Meeting – in the synagogue and the house of study – but also “Outside the curtain of the Tent,” that is, in the home, in the streets and throughout all of our endeavors in the real world.
Still others see the theme of continuity reflected in the way the lamp is to be lit. The phrase used to describe the method of lighting is ‘ le’haalot ’ – ‘to raise up the light’. The classic commentator Rashi (France, C11th) interprets this to mean that the priest must hold the flame to the wick “until the new flame is capable of standing up by itself”. Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (Germany, C 19th) sees this as a powerful symbol of continuity through education. We have a responsibility to hold the flame of tradition up to the next generation, until they are able to carry the flame by themselves. Only then can we take the lighting flame away when, as he says, “the teacher has made himself superfluous!”
This last explanation may indeed explain why Moses’ name is absent from this week’s portion – the only portion of the Bible since his birth not to mention him. For the promise of continuity is also the promise that the Jewish people and Jewish teaching will survive, even when Moses, the greatest teacher, is no longer present.
The challenge of providing for continuity that faced Moses faces Jewish and Israeli leaders today. As the Ner Tamid reminds us, it is not sufficient for leaders to burn brightly themselves. They must also ensure that they raise up a new generation of flames, capable of burning independently, and carrying the light of tradition and responsibility into the future.
In others’ words
Prime Minister David Ben Gurion on continuity:
“At this moment let us remember with love and appreciation the three generations of pioneers and defenders who paved their way for later achievements, the men who created Mikve Israel, Petach Tikva, Rishon Lezion, Zichron Yaakov and Rosh Pina, as well as those who recently established settlements in the Negev desert and the Galilee hills; the founders of Hashomer and the Jewish Legion, as well as the men who are now locked in fierce battle from Dan to Beer Sheva. Many of these about whom I have spoken are no longer among the living, but their memory remains forever in our hearts and in the heart of the Jewish people.”
Broadcast to the Nation, May 15, 1948
On a lighter note
Jews and lights: three Jewish change-the-light-bulb jokes:
How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? – None, I’ll just sit here in the dark and suffer!
How many synagogue members does it take to change a bulb? – Change! You vant we should change the light bulb? My grandfather donated that light bulb!
How many Diaspora Zionists does it take to replace a light bulb? – Four: one to stay home and convince someone else to do it, a second to donate the bulb, a third to screw it in, and a fourth to proclaim that the entire Jewish people stands behind their actions!