Drash on Parashat T'tzaveh

Drash on Parashat T'tzaveh       
Rabbi Gary J Robuck
Temple Beth Israel, St Kilda, VIC

The Ner Tamid

When growing up in Cleveland, Ohio, I attended services at Park Synagogue, a national landmark building featuring a number of striking features:  a spectacular round sanctuary resting below a massive, imposing dome and a two-tiered bima; one below from which the rabbi would speak and the one above where the Chazzan would sing. 

To this day, the Aron Kodesh (ark) located at its front is depicted in bronze or copper perhaps and bears the image of the priest’s hands in mid blessing.  Above the ark rests a Keter – a crown standing several meters tall and wide, representing God’s sovereignty.  The sanctuary’s Bima has two menorahs, one on either side and representations of the 12 tribes.  Wrapping around it all are clear windows which reveal the setting of the sun at Kabbalat Shabbat, which at the end of Yom Kippur allow worshippers to track the setting of the sun and to gauge when they will at last be able to break their fasts.   

And one other prominent feature: a magnificent Ner Tamid, inspired by the first verse of this week’s sidra.

וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה ׀ אֶת־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד׃

“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” (Exodus 27:20).

Permit me to share a personal story.  When I was just twelve and preparing for my Bar Mitzvah, many of my lessons were held in the dead of winter: a Northern Hemisphere, snow-belt winter.  My mother would pick me up afterwards very conscientiously.  She hardly ever forgot where her children were(!)  But on one occasion she did.  As a result, I ended up walking alone through the dark corridors of this enormous synagogue complex, looking at the framed class photos displayed on the walls; photos of confirmands dating back nearly 100 years. And then I reached the Beit K’nesset, the sanctuary. 

Do you have moments in your life that stick with you?  Where you remember its sights, smells, and sounds?   

For me, this was one of those moments.  I remember so well as I timidly opened the door, (which was hermetically sealed) and entered the Beit K’nesset which was utterly still and dark but for one small light: the light of the Ner Tamid.  It was awesome. 

Even as a child of 12, as the light of the Ner Tamid silently flickered, I knew I was having a rare spiritual experience and a formative moment in my life.  I sensed God’s presence. 

I’ve been thinking about the Ner Tamid ever since.  Its light attests to the presence of the invisible God who called out to Avraham and revealed the Divine will to Moshe and the Israelites at Sinai.  But not only that.  The Ner Tamid recalls the miracle of our people’s very survival; the improbable endurance of Judaism that, despite enslavement, exile, oppression, crusades, inquisition, ghettos, camps, blood libels, war – has continued to bring to the world the light of Torah; a Torah of compassion, peace, justice, and so much else. 

When I look at the Ner Tamid I see all of that.  A people and God forever knit together always (tamid) in an unbreakable bond.  

When reading this week’s portion, you could be forgiven for thinking that we need an ornate ark, lots of finery and fancy clothes like those worn by the Priests to draw near to God.  We don’t.  Not exactly.  But these symbols: the clothing, the colourful Torah mantles and yes, the Ner Tamid - like silver Kiddush cups, brass candlesticks and colourful tallitot, remind us of our sacred relationship to God and to one another as well as our responsibility to perform the mitzvot regularly, beautifully, and to the best of our abilities.    

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