Shabbat Terumah: Keep the Fire Burning

In parashat Terumah we read of the ner tamid. You have perhaps noticed this light, since its direct descendant brings illumination in every shul in the world, usually somewhere near the Ark. It is often referred to as the “Eternal Light”. 

But as we look at the verse that presents it, we see something a bit different: You shall command the people of Israel to bring you pure oil of beaten olives for lighting, to lift up the light regularly. (Ex. 27.20)

The word tamid in the Torah can mean “regular” or “uninterruptedly”, depending on which scholar you read. (For more on this and lots of other fascinating ancient Hebrew terms, see the website Balashon). What it does not mean is “miraculously eternally automatically”.

This leads to a visual of some ancient priest whose regular job is to ensure that this fire, this ner tamid, does not EVER go out – wind, rain, even the occasional snow notwithstanding. 

What was so special about this fire? Only this: its origin was a bolt of fire that came directly from the Eternal (Lev. 9.24.). The fire itself came from G-d; all the priest had to do was to tend it, not to let it go out. Eternal fire, but only if it is tended.

The fire has been compared in a Hasidic parable to our own, human “fire” – that of enthusiasm, of caring, of believing. The fire in our hearts also comes from an Eternal Source, after all. Our parashah hints that, even as the Divine fire on the altar needs help to stay bright and powerful, and similarly, so you have to tend your fire on your altar – that is, your heart – if it is to stay strong.

How do you tend your fire – how do you stay open to moments that illuminate, and let them bring you joy? Here are a few suggestions from our tradition:

* Rabbi Eliezer said: A person only has to choose whether to eat and drink or to sit and study [to experience joy]. Rabbi Joshua said: Divide it—half [of the holiday] to eating and drinking, and half of it to the house of study. (Talmud Bavli, Pesakhim 68b)

* Join the communal observance of holidays even if you don’t feel like it. The festival observances allow us to help each other arouse an inner sense of joy that we cannot always find alone. (Rav Soloveitchik)

* Just as lightning breaks through heavy clouds and illuminates the earth, so tzedakah gives light to the heart.  (Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Lyady)

It is written: “You are my witnesses, says the Eternal, and I am your G-d. This is to say that if we are not witnesses, then G-d is – if we could say such a thing – not G-d.” There is no such thing as an Eternal fire unless we feed it; as we strengthen our own hearts and help each other, we are keeping alive and strong the fire of our witness of G-d’s presence, and of our religious tradition’s Eternal demand for the justice and ethics that comes from the illumination of that fire.

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