Rabbi’s Corner

Eternal light not just symbol of God’s presence

Rabbi Helen T. Cohn
Rabbi Helen T. Cohn

A key feature of a synagogue tour is the ner tamid, the eternal light. We explain to people unfamiliar with synagogue symbolism that the light represents God’s eternal presence.

But is it that simple?

The Torah describes in detail the menorah, the seven-branched lamp stand, which was one of the key gold furnishings in the desert Mishkan (tabernacle) and later in the Jerusalem Temple. However, this week’s Torah portion adds an important element: how the menorah is to be used. God says to Moses, “And you shall command the Israelites that they take for you clear oil of beaten olives for illumination, to light the lamp continually (l’haalot ner tamid).”

One of the many things I love about the Jews is that we are not content to let even an obvious phrase like “ner tamid” remain unexamined. So, of course, we have differing opinions as to its meaning.

The most obvious interpretation of tamid (continual, perpetual, always) comes from the Torah’s very next verse, “… from evening until morning.” That is, the lamp is to be lit always from evening to morning. But the midrash, in a deliberate misreading, chooses to interpret the expression to mean this light is to burn constantly, day as well as night. The midrash says the other lights in the sanctuary burn evening through morning; the ner tamid stays lit perpetually and is used every evening to kindle the other lights.

So which is it? Is the light relit every evening, or is the light to burn continually?

In true Jewish fashion, let’s say both are accurate readings. What can we learn from this?

The continually burning light reminds us that The Eternal One is present always, everywhere. This presence can be felt during our bright, joyful days and during the darkness that descends on us all. It is an eternal light of holiness, a symbol of God’s continual, perpetual presence in our lives everywhere, not just in the synagogue.

But what about the other view, that the light must be relit, day after day? This view is supported by the cantillation marks that provide the syntax of the Torah’s verses. In our verse these marks show a pause between the two words, indicating that a better translation would be “to light the lamp, continually.”

This reading is more about us. It is a reminder that we must constantly rekindle our dedication to a life in God’s presence. The ner tamid reminds us we must continue to light our inner lamp, to strive for holiness, to aspire to words and deeds that reflect the best in ourselves.

God doesn’t need light. The command for “light, continually” is for our sake, a symbol that God is always present, and that we need to continually rekindle our desire to experience that presence and live our lives in its light.