Drash on Parashat Tetzaveh 2019
Cantor Ted Labow
North Shore Temple Emanuel, Chatswood, NSW
An eternal resource
The religious lives of many ancient peoples included worship of the sun; Ra for the Egyptians, Helios for the Greeks, Baal Shemesh for the Canaanites. Even if sometimes pointing towards monotheism, these cults were nonetheless thoroughly pagan. It was only through a rejection of them that knowledge of the ancient Hebrew God as one and without form, could be arrived at.
Old cultures do not fade easily, though, and the concept of the ‘eternal’ symbolised in the energy of flame was retained in Judaism. The establishment of a ner tamid, an eternal light, is outlined in Parashat T’zaveh in the opening verses: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly”. (Exodus 27:20-21*). Indicated here is either a continuous lamp or one that is kindled from evening to morning in an eternal cycle. In the modern synagogue, a continuously burning electric lamp, usually beautifully designed, is the norm.
Science teaches us that energy cannot be created or destroyed, but only transformed. The oil of the eternal lamp or menorah, or the electricity, is used and produces light and heat that is not recoverable. If the lamp burns continuously, this use is continuous. Although usually a tiny lamp, we find ourselves, in the tradition of the lamp, making an exception to our modern conservationist values. Our continuous connection to God is embodied in the metaphoric phrase “keeping the flame alive”. While our secular instinct is to literally “turn the light out”, our religious sensitivity directs us to consume the resource without interruption. The ner tamid satisfies our spiritual sense, but it’s continual burning also directs us to consider our physical world.
We live in a ‘tamid-eternal’ world. At least, we act as if we do. When we turn on the tap, water flows. When we push a button, a light shines. When we go to fill our vehicles or recharge them, energy is available. While this is not true for all peoples of the world - many live in scarcity - it is true for much of the industrialised world. We live, not in worship of the sun, but as if we had caught it. We rely on these things as given, and except for a power outage here or there, many of us will never have the experience of not having these resources in our lifetimes.
We also know that the ‘tamid-eternal’ world of resource is an illusion. Our resources are not limitless. Even when we find new sources, we cannot forget that humankind will still need to continue to consume energy five hundred years from now. Great strides have been made in the fields of renewable energy and conservation. We harness the sun and the wind, relegating the ancient pagan gods to our will and whim. We approach the sun and the planets even closer than before, but our wings of wax do not melt as did those of Icarus. What we do not keep in the forefront of our daily living, though, is the reality of the resource limitations. We only seem to notice when they start to run out. This is our optimism, if indeed sometimes foolish.
The ner tamid, however, hints to us that the culture of abundance is not necessarily foolish. We are to enjoy the world and to devise ways, through technological advance, to keep it safe and warm for humanity. But never to excess. To paraphrase 1 Kings 19:12, the ner tamid is that ‘still, small light’. Not a great, raging, consuming fire that cannot be sustained or controlled, but a moderated one that uses resources at a reasonable rate. It teaches us to measure what we take from the world. While our capacity for devotion to God may be limitless, it also needs to be measured as a resource, never overcoming us completely, but always present as we interact with this home called Earth. Using energy for the ner tamid continuously, with this in mind, becomes the embodiment of responsible consumption.
We can’t tell how long the archetypal eternal light will burn. It is meant to be eternal, and therefore infinite, but infinity is a difficult concept for human beings. What we do know, is that when we walk into a synagogue, as our ancestors moved through the ancient Tabernacle and Temples, that the presence of the same light across the millennia can inspire us and give us hope. Connecting to those who have witnessed the ner tamid over time, even if only through presence of a tiny flame, brings a shining warmth to the soul of the Jewish people in which a unique energy is created that never before existed.
Postscript: The morning after the writing of this d’var Torah, our apartment experienced a full power outage due to a faulty breaker. Rather than working from home, I made my way to my office at Temple North Shore Emanuel to complete the editing, passing, on my way, the sanctuary ner tamid.
*Eitz Chayim translation (pp. 503-504)