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.

Shabbat haGadol: Preparing for Today

This is the last Shabbat before we leave. Grab what you think you can take with you, we have no idea, really, what we’ll be facing, only that we’re leaving.

בכל דור ודור חייב אד לראות את עצמו כאילו הוא יצא ממצרים . In every generation, each person is obligated to see himself as if he went out of Egypt.  (Mishnah Pesakhim 10:5)

This mitzvah, this obligation, is at the heart of our celebration of Pesakh, the Festival of Matzah. And on this last Shabbat before Pesakh we are to prepare, and to help each other to prepare. But here’s the paradox: the moment itself, should we reach it (may we reach it in peace!), will be something we cannot be prepared for.

How shall we be prepared for that which we cannot prepare for? The regular parashah this week, parashat Tzav, holds a clue to the answer. Among the directions for maintaining the newly established sacrificial system we find the following:

  אֵשׁ, תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ–לֹא תִכְבֶּה.

Fire shall be kept alight upon the altar continually; it shall not go out. (Lev. 6.6)

We find that the Jerusalem Talmud comments, “continually—even on Shabbat; continually—even in a state of spiritual unreadiness.” (PT Yoma 4.6)

In a very real way, this is still our daily work: to keep the fire burning. The mystics teach that every aspect of the physical Sanctuary has its counterpart in the inward Sanctuary, within the soul of the Jew. Your heart, they teach, is that altar. Our most important task is to keep the fire – of passion, of love, of joy – burning. 

How do you prepare for the unknown that Pesakh commands us to face? by keeping your inner fire bright. That which you do to take care of that inner fire – even on Shabbat, even when you are distracted, bored, not “spiritually ready” – that will keep you prepared, even for that which you cannot imagine in your future.

In this context we note that the name here for the continually burning fire is eysh tamid, from which we get the ner tamid, that light in every Jewish sanctuary which is misunderstood as the Eternal Light. The only thing eternal about it is the regular daily dedication of those who were tasked with keeping it going, regularly, all the time! Once that was the priests on behalf of us all, but since the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, we act according to the Torah’s teaching that “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy people” (Exodus 19.6). We are all priests now, and that fire’s regular light depends upon all of us to keep it going, not only for ourselves but for each other.

The Talmud records the teaching: “the one who has enough to eat today and worries about tomorrow has no faith.” (BT Eruvin 54a) This is not meant to encourage you against future planning – only to understand that essentially we cannot control tomorrow, but we can act upon today. Especially upon ourselves. Worry about yourself today, the Sages suggest, and you need not fear tomorrow. Keep that fire going for today. One day at a time. Right now.