Ner Tamid – Keeping the Flame Lit

Winter 2020 Bulletin Article

I still remember the day when I was in 10th grade confirmation learning my Temple’s best kept secret. For as long as I could remember, a light hung above the ark in the sanctuary. The ner tamid, or eternal light, as I learned it was called in religious school. The truth is, I never bothered to ask how the light stayed lit, and never went out. It sort of felt like magic. But as I grew older, I assumed there was some secret to the light staying lit, and on that first night of Confirmation class, our rabbi took us into the sanctuary, and we learned the secret, we discovered that which made the light eternal.

It wasn’t magic after all. As we walked into the sanctuary, we saw a ladder on the bima right beneath the eternal light. Our rabbi turned to the class and said, “As the oldest students in the religious school, this will be your weekly task, to change the week long candle that serves as the eternal light.” And so we did. Each Wednesday evening, our class took turns climbing the ladder to remove the burned candle and replace it with a new one, constantly keeping a flame lit.

There are many explanations for the symbolism of the eternal light. But that evening, one particular metaphor stuck with me. The ner tamid served as a physical reminder of the light that we must bring into the world. And as we were concluding our formal religious education, we had a responsibility to help continue to bring our fuel to the fire. In other words, we bore the responsibility to play our part in making the world a more just, more whole place to live. Keeping the ner tamid, a perpetual light, requires communal effort, communal responsibility, and a willingness to work towards a common purpose. It may have been the most important lesson I learned all year.

I always think about that lesson as we enter into the darkest season of the year — what are the ways in which I continue to bring light into the world? What are the ways that I work to keep that communal flame lit? As it gets colder outside, it is much easier to curl up inside and live surrounded by the darkness of the world around us. But each year, I imagine myself metaphorically climbing the ladder in that sanctuary and adding my fuel to the fire. What are the ways you will bring light into our world during this dark season? What is the fuel that you will bring to keep our communal fire aflame?

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