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.
We have left Egypt, and at the foot of Mt. Sinai we have witnessed a great and ineffable moment of connection with That Which Cannot Be Named, and which nevertheless worked to link all of us together with certainty in that mystery. We were going forward together, as a people.
But not yet. In this week’s parashah, we are still camped at Sinai, in the days and weeks after the climactic moments of awe and exhilaration. Now what? It is clear that the world is different, is newly-begun; what is not so clear yet is the way in which we will move into it.
Somehow, the impetus to build a holy place came forth from that time. It is interesting to consider what it means to call a place holy.
There are some awesome holy places in the world, places built specifically so that we could seek G-d’s presence. There are cathedrals, temples, mosques, and, of course, shuls. This past week I was privileged to encounter the heiau, the Hawaiian holy place, and to learn about its construction. A heiau is constructed of lava rocks, some of them quite dense and heavy, which are moved great distances by human chains, people handing the rocks from one to the next, hundreds and even thousands of people all working together. A heiau can measure as much as 140 by 180 feet and be 30 feet high. That’s a lot of rocks, and even more coordinated action bringing together a huge number of people.
All communal holy places seem to have this in common: it takes many people to create one. As our parashat hashavua puts it, every member of the Israelite community is called upon to participate, to bring a terumah, an offering of that which they are and which they have to give. There is work for all, with only one requirement: “all whose hearts so move them.” (Exodus 25.2)
Our hearts have to be in the work, or it can’t be holy. In other words, there many be many shuls, churches, temples, and mosques which are glorious and grand, but unless we are all involved in the building, and our hearts are truly in it, it won’t be a holy place. We can’t all carry heavy rocks, and not all of us can design a Sukkah that will stay up a week, much less a shul, but all of us have the gift of our joy and intention.
“Where is G-d?” the Kotzker Rebbe was once asked. “Where?” he replied, “wherever you let G-d in.”
What are you involved in building in your life? a project, a program, a kitchen remodel? On this Shabbat consider: even as a shul is not a holy place unless our hearts are in it, so also, in every place in which you are truly there with an open heart, that place is holy. And then you will understand the insight of the Shelah, Rabbi Isaiah Horowitz (called the Shelah after the acronym of the name of his most well-known book of Torah commentary, the Shnei Lukhot HaBrit):
They shall make for Me a sanctuary, and I will dwell amidst them (25:8)
The verse does not say, “and I will dwell within it,” but “and I will dwell within them”–within each and every one of them. (the Shelah)