Parashat Tetzaveh

By Jill Hackell

“And you will command B’nai Yisrael that they bring to you oil of olives, pure, beaten, to draw up a ner tamid.”

Several years ago, at the annual Purim Ball, I won a set of tallit clips in a raffle. These were beautifully hand-crafted in silver by a jeweler in our congregation in the shape of our synagogue’s ark. And in the center, just above the doors of the ark, a little red gemstone sparkled – representing the ner tamid. This week’s parashah, which we will read on Shabbat Zakhor, the Shabbat just before Purim, continues the description of the meticulous craftsmanship that went into the building of the Mishkan and the vestments of the Kohen gadol. And it opens with the commandment to raise a ner tamid – the source for the eternal lamps that burn before the ark in our synagogues today.

In the days of the Mishkan, this lamp was set up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over the Ark. The words “ner tamid” may refer to a lamp that burns without interruption, or to one that is regularly lit. In the Mishkan it was lit to burn only from evening to morning. But providing the oil for keeping it lit was to be a public obligation for all time, throughout the generations. Some synagogues have continued the practice of an oil-burning lamp. Members of the congregation take turns replenishing the oil, and are honored with a special “misheberach” prayer recited on Shabbat mornings. Most synagogues today use an electric light which remains lit; solar-powered lamps are increasingly used so that we can be environmentally sound.

What does this light represent? Light has long been a metaphor for God’s Presence, which not only “enlightens” the world, “Arise, shine for your light has dawned; the Presence of the Lord has shone upon you!”(Isa. 60:1), but also provides a holy spark within all of us, that we may play a role in this illumination.

Rabbi Aha uses the metaphor of the olive lamp to indicate this collaboration between God and Israel. Israel is the olive tree and God the lamp. When oil from the olive tree is put into the lamp “then the two together give light as though they were one. Hence the Holy One will say to Israel: My children, since My light is your light and your light is My light, let us go together – you and I – and give light to Zion.” (Pesikta d’ Rav Kahana 21:4)

Rav Kook puts this in a more universal frame, and emphasizes the unique role each of us plays: “Everyone must know and understand that within burns a candle and no one’s candle is identical with the candle of another, and there is no human being without a candle…One needs to ignite one’s candle and make of it a great torch to enlighten the whole world.”

Here is a tekhinah, a personal prayer in Yiddish that was recited by a woman as she lit her Shabbat candles each Friday night:

Riboyne shel oylem, may the mitsve of my lighting the candles be accepted as equivalent to the mitsve of the koyen godl when he lit the candles in the precious beys hamikdesh. As his observance was accepted, so may mine be accepted. “Your words are a candle at my feet and a light for my path” (Psalms 119:105) means that Your words are a candle at my feet so that all my children may walk in God’s path, and may the mitzve of my candle lighting be accepted so that my children’s eyes may be illumined by the precious holy toyre. I also ask at this time that this mitzve of lighting candles be accepted as equivalent to the olive oil which burned in the beys hamikdesh and which was never extinguished. [from Frankel]

May the ner tamid, and also the light of your Shabbat candles, lit every Friday night from generation to generation, for all time, always be for you a source of warmth and love, inspiration and creativity.

Shabbat Shalom.

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Jill Hackell is a student at AJR, and the rabbinic intern and long-time member of Congregation Sons of Israel in Upper Nyack, New York.