Every synagogue has within it a Ner Tamid, a constant and continuously illuminating light that burns above the Ark. There are a variety of ideas about exactly what it symbolises – it is often associated with the menorah, the seven-branched lamp stand which stood in front of the Temple in Jerusalem. Or with the continuously-burning incense altar which stood in front of the Ark. Our sages interpreted the Ner Tamid as a symbol of God’s eternal and imminent Presence in our communities and in our lives – essentially it is a symbol of the eternal nature of our Covenant with God.
In Parashat Tetzaveh, Aaron is charged with the duty of attending the Ner Tamid – Le’ha’alot Ner Tamid – a verb that doesn’t actually mean “to light” (which would, like the Shabbat candle blessing be ‘lehadlik” but instead literally means ‘to cause to rise up’ or ‘to elevate’ the eternal light. We are told that every evening Aaron goes into the tabernacle and lights the seven lamps of the menorah (candlestick) so that they will burn and illuminate through the night, and he ‘elevates’ the Ner Tamid too. So does this mean that the light of the Ner Tamid is like that of the menorah, not a perpetual flame but one that burns out each day?
The great medieval commentator Rashi asks about the unusual verb that is used – Le’ha’alot Ner Tamid, and says “one should deal with the flame and tend it so that it rises on its own” So Aaron would not actually have to relight the Ner Tamid, he would have to nurture it (trimming the wick or adding the oil) until the flame rose on its own. So this instruction to Aaron about the raising of the light of the Ner Tamid is nothing to do with illumination or lighting the lamp, it is about the nurturing of an existing flame, about the daily renewal of something profoundly important.
The Ner Tamid symbolises the eternal nature of our covenant with God – the real relationship that is always present – if not always acknowledged – between us and God. And just as the Ner Tamid needs regular and frequent tending, so does our relationship with God need regular and frequent attention if it is to be at its best.
In Pesikta de Rav Kahana – an Aramaic collection of midrashim, we find the story of Rabbi Aha, who says of the Ner Tamid that Israel is the olive tree and God is the lamp. When oil from the olive tree is put into the lamp, then the two together give light as one unity. So the Holy One will say to Israel “My children, since My light is your light and your light is My light, let us go together, you and I, and give light to Zion”.
The purpose of our covenant with God is to work to bring more light into the world, to make the world a better place by collaborating with the creator to bring about justice and righteousness in our world. If we see a Ner Tamid simply as a beautiful artefact hanging in a frequently empty building, then we miss the point that it is making – that each of us must make a daily effort to enlighten and improve our world.