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Keep the Fire Bright

Rabbi Samuel M. Cohon’s Torah Talk on Tetzaveh 5780

This week we read the Torah portion of Tetzaveh in the Book of Exodus, a ritually oriented parshah which gives the commandment to create a Ner Tamid, an eternal light, for the Tabernacle in the Wilderness. The Tabernacle was the first sanctuary of the people of Israel. Although technically speaking the Tabernacle, the Mishkan, was just a very elaborate, portable tent, it was the also the place where God’s Presence, in the form of the Shechinah, resided. Last week in Terumah our ancestors were asked to create this sacred space through the voluntary gifts of their hearts.

This week we are told that there should be a continual fire, a ner tamid, a constant light shining on the altar, a sign of God’s faithful and permanent presence in our midst. Revealingly, that light is to be created and kindled by us, not God. We must build the altar, and the fire, and continue to feed and nurture it to keep it alive. And if you have ever kept a fire burning around the clock—say, at a campout or bonfire, or for heat on a cold winter’s night in some frigid clime—you know just how much fuel you need to do it. You are always either stoking it or bringing in more wood for it to burn. If neglected for any length of time it would burn out.

The Ner Tamid was not just a symbol, but a process, requiring regular care and feeding to flourish.

Our spiritual life is rather like that ancient Ner Tamid. If we wish God’s Presence to illuminate our lives, to give us warmth and comfort, than we, too, must feed our own ner tamid, must gently and regularly add spiritual fuel to the flame. Religious experiences, prayer, meditation, introspection, saying blessings, personal and communal rituals, time for breathing and allowing God into our lives—all of these help feed the fire. And they must be done with some regularity, or our own internal eternal lights may—will—go out.

The Ner Tamid, that ancient light, is found today in every synagogue in the world, no matter how humble the shul or how grand the Temple. While today we simply pay the electric bills to keep it alive, even that requires a bit of our active participation. But its symbolic purpose is much greater.

The Ner Tamid burns always to remind us that God is with us, always—if we only take the time to feed our own spiritual fires regularly.

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