Our portion opens with, “As for you, you shall command the Israelites that they take you clear oil of beaten olives for the light, l’ha’olot ner tamid – to raise a lamp perpetually.” (Exodus 27:20) Rashi understands “tamid” as “continually, as described here, doing something every night.” The lamp burned from evening until daybreak, and was lit again each evening by the priestly attendants, using a special oil to rekindle this light.
Rami bar Hama taught that one may interpret the verse homiletically: The requirement is to light the candelabrum so that the flame ascends of itself when it is kindled, and not that it ascends by means of something else, i.e., adjusting the wick after it was lit.” (Shabbat 21a) This pure olive oil ignites a flame that is self-kindling.
Over time, the term “ner tamid” became synonymous with “eternal light” – the ever present and ever burning light in the sanctuary that hangs in front of the ark; an ever-present reminder of our connection to God and what it means to be part of the Jewish people.
This eternal light shines in each of us, as it is written: “A candle/light of God is the soul of man.” (Proverbs 20:27) Over our history as a people, our history as individuals, this light has continued to shine – sometimes more intensely than others. What keeps it lit? Our Jewish tradition connects that light with the expression “a pintele Yid” – God’s Presence (the Hebrew letter “Yud”) buried deep in the soul of each and every Jew (the Yiddish expression “Yid”). No matter where one finds oneself on the continuum of Jewish life and practice, each of us has the power to self-kindle that flame – through seeking, through learning, through living a Judaism that brings more meaning and more depth into our lives.
Each of us has a spark inside,
A warm and special glow.
It’ s a quiet flame that never dies,
The Ner Tamid in every Jewish soul.
An eternal light through history,
Sometimes bright and sometimes dim:
But always there in each of us –
shining from within.
Rabbi Enid C. Lader is the rabbi at Beth Israel-The West Temple in Cleveland and is the president of the Greater Cleveland Board of Rabbis.