Eternal light is reminder of God’s constant presence


with our first-grade students at Temple Israel and discussed the different sacred objects that each of them saw in the sanctuary. They were quick to identify the 10 Commandments, the sculpture of the burning bush, and the podium shaped like Noah’s Ark, but when they got to the ner tamid , they were stumped. “That’s the eternal light,” I explained. “It is so important that every synagogue has one.” After a brief, confused pause, suddenly all hands went up in the air as they bombarded me with questions, ranging from “What’s a ternal?” to that simple question that’s never so simple to answer, “WHY?” My immediate response, that we are commanded to have a ner tamid in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh , satisfied the first-graders rather short attention spans, but I was intrigued by their question. Why indeed?

In studying the text itself in Exodus 27:20, we see that the original commandment to have a light burning in the Tent of Meeting was not actually for a light to be perpetually ( tamid ) burning; rather, a lamp was to be lit on a fixed, constant ( tamid ) schedule, so that it would burn from the evening to the morning. When the Temple was destroyed, the custom originated that synagogues should have their own separate lights to fulfill the commandment as much as possible. It was only then that the ner tamid became seen as an eternal light, one that was constantly lighting the house of worship.

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But, in the words of my first-graders, why? Why is it that you can enter any synagogue, and while the eternal light may be lit by solar power or batteries, encased in gold or glass, tremendously bright or a mere pinpoint of light, a ner tamid will always be present?

For some, the ner tamid is seen in its most historical sense, representing the Menorah of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. For others, seeing the light above the ark reminds us of the holiness of the Torah scrolls stored within it. Yet our sages interpreted the ner tamid as a symbol of God’s presence, eternally with us, never extinguished. We have no physical image of God, but we do have the ner tamid as a visual reminder, a nearly tangible illustration of God’s presence. While we witness the ner tamid in synagogue, we can also symbolically light the ner tamid within our own hearts, keeping God with us throughout each day, eternally aware that God is with us in every moment. The Midrash teaches us that indeed, God needs the light of the ner tamid just as we do, saying, “When Israel lights the menorah it gives light, as it were, to God himself — even as God gives light to Israel.”

In these last dark weeks of winter, may we each be inspired to find the ner tamid within ourselves.

Rabbi Amy Feder of Temple Israel prepared this week’s Torah Portion.