“And you will command the children of Israel to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for lighting, to cause a lamp to burn continually (ner tamid)” (Exodus 27:20-12)
This first mitzvah of the tabernacle is interesting for several reasons. It echoes the first words of God at creation– y’hi or – let there be light. And in a narrative dedicated to the clothing and behaviour of the priests, the command here is communal – the responsibility for an eternal light belongs to the people, not the priesthood. The lamp sits facing the ark curtain, prepared and lit by the priests each evening to burn through till the morning. In the parallel passage in Leviticus 24:2-4 the ner tamid clearly has several flames, and far from hanging over the ark as a modern ner tamid does, it is part of a lampstand on the opposite wall to the ark– the seven branched menorah. Indeed during the temple period its other name was the ner ma’aravi, the western light. It is thought that while all the lights burned through the night, only one was kept burning continually (1Sam 3:3)
Why does the bible ask us to keep a small light burning continually since clearly the function of lighting the sacred space is done by the other lights? And why must we repeatedly light more lights? We often say the ner tamid is a reminder of God’s continuing presence in our world, a small beacon of hope that stays with us as the pillar of fire guided us in the desert. Yet this is not enough. The echo of y’hi or reminds us that we too must play our role in the creation of our world. Every day we must tend to this work. The people must bring the prepared oil – this is our job and no one else’s.
written for “the bible says what?” Jewish News February 2019