Torah Reading for Week of February 21-27, 2021
By Rabbi Rachel Axelrad, ’20
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
In Exodus 27:20-21, we read:
You shall command the Children of Israel [thus]: They shall bring olive oil for lighting that is clear and beaten before you, to raise up the light always. Aaron and his sons shall prepare them in the Tent of Meeting outside the curtain which is over the Testimony, from evening until morning before Adonai, a law forever for the generations of the Children of Israel.
In this passage, the Torah presents the textual basis for the Ner Tamid. The text of course refers to the lamp that is continuously lit in the Tent of Meeting before the eidut (Testimony), and later in the Beit HaMikdash. The act of lighting the lamp- l’ha’a lot – is in the hifil infinitive, literally, “cause to ascend”. This verb is also translated as “raise up”, “elevate”, and “offer [a sacrifice]”. Each instance involves an action directed upward to facilitate a connection to the Divine. The specific location-before the eidut – tells us that the continuous light is witnessed, testified to. The combination of the light and its raising up is seen as a testimony to the existence of a Divine connection and to our capacity to access that connection. This is the essence that we are concerned with today. The rabbinic custom of establishing a Ner Tamid in every synagogue is critical in that it assures us of that Divine connectivity that we can access even today, two millennia after the Second Temple destruction. We note a similar passage in Leviticus 24:1-3, almost identical, underscoring the significance of the Ner Tamid – the continuous light:
Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Children of Israel [thus]. They shall bring olive oil for lighting that is clear and beaten before you, to raise up the light always. Outside the curtain of Testimony Aaron shall prepare it always from evening until morning before Adonai; a law forever for their generations.
The instruction is repeated again in Numbers 8:2:
Say to Aaron “you shall say to them, ‘in your raising up the lights in front of the menorah, seven candles shall be lit.’”
Note the repetition of the root for lighting, beha’a lot’cha. The very act of lighting the menorah reflects an upward connectivity to the Divine. Clearly, our theology directs us to understand our connection to the Divine via this metaphor of the lighting of continuous lights. It is no surprise that in the aftermath of the destruction of the Second Temple, rabbinic Judaism established the custom of maintaining a constant light over the ark that holds the Sefer Torah, calling it a Ner Tamid.
This Divine connection is not limited to a lamp in the synagogue. Thus, spiritually, the Ner Tamid transcends the priestly duties in the Beit HaMikdash, becoming a metaphor for our capacity to connect with the Divine in our mundane lives, wherever and whenever we are.
Consider the passage in Psalm 18:29:
It is You who light my lamp; the LORD, my God, lights up my darkness [JPS translation]
The Psalmist, in the voice of David, is in the deepest pit of despair, nowhere near the Ark, whether in the Tent of Meeting or the Beit HaMikdash (which hasn’t even been built). Yet, at his time of deepest distress, beset by enemies, he achieves an upward connection with the Divine, expressed as the Light. He encapsulates the essence of the fire-light in his soul and uses it to reflect his energy outward and upward out of the pit to overcome his dark challenges. It is a connectivity that we feel in our souls.
Midrash Tanchuma, Beha’alotcha 4:1 aptly describes this capacity to perceive the Divine light by reflecting it outward:
“For You light up my lamp.” Israel said to the Holy One, blessed be He, “Master of the world, are You saying that we should give light before You? [But] You are the light of the world and the light [dwells] with You, as it is written…‘He reveals the deep and secret things, He knows what is in the darkness, and the light dwells within Him.’ …” [https://www.sefaria.org/topics/lighting?tab=sources].
The Etz Chaim commentary describes this Light ‘as a symbol of God – it cannot be seen itself; it enables us to see other things. We cannot see God, but are aware of Him in the beauty of the world. Light is the process of liberating the energy hidden in the object. Fire – a human technology – represents human effort to bring the reality of God into our world.’ By accessing the Divine Light from above and reflecting the light outwards from our souls, we are able to connect with the beauty that surrounds us.
During the past year, we have been in a period of darkness and distress, much like the Psalmist, in his deepest pit of despair. As we approach an abatement of the terrible disease that has plagued us for so many months, we can “see the light at the end of tunnel”. We are not there yet. However, we have the capacity to reach for the Divine light, whenever and wherever we are. As we continue to adhere to the health and safety protocols established by scientific experts, we radiate the Divine light that we are able to connect with. As we look upward to connect with the Divine light above, we will be able to emerge from the deep cover of the darkness that has plagued us during the last year. We will again be able to see the beauty of the world around us as we reflect this Divine light outward from our souls.