By Reb David
This week’s second portion of Leviticus (Tzav) continues Torah’s journey through the ancient rituals of sacrifice – for guilt and sin, healing, love of God, and installation of priests. The instruction about the ritual altar offers deep wisdom about the soul and the nature of spiritual community.
Of the ritual altar, this week’s portion instructs אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא תִכְבֶּה / “Fire will be kept burning on the altar continually: it will not go out” (Lev. 6:6). In ancient days, the altar’s flame was to be tended constantly, so its light of purification would never darken. The flame, in turn, was a beacon for Shechinah, the indwelling divine presence: during Israel’s desert wandering, a “cloud by day and fire by night” was the divine beacon for “the eyes of everyone in Israel,” leading each of them “in all their journeys” (Ex. 40:38).
Synagogues today restore the altar’s flame with the ner tamid, the eternal light hanging over the Ark that houses the Torah scroll. Prayer, learning and acts of service long ago replaced the Israelite sacrificial system: the Ark replaced the altar. Even so, the eternal flame, the “perpetual fire” symbolizing God, remains one of Judaism’s most potent symbols. Why?
Consider what it took in ancient days to keep this flame burning. A flame was a literal staff and source of life, giving heat, protection and the ability to prepare food. These, in turn, were the fuel and focus of community: it took community to keep the flame burning. It took collective effort to build the altar, gather wood (Lev. 6:5), tend the flame (Lev. 6:6), remove the ashes (Lev. 6:3-4) and make the “pure olive oil” that was the fire’s fuel (Ex. 27:20). Like the mishkan (Tent of Meeting) itself, the ner tamid burned because people kept it alive. So too in our own day: a synagogue – truly, any community – shines or darkens by the care and effort of its members.
The ner tamid also symbolizes the divine Presence. Of course, no idea, no name and no place accurately can depict “God” – because any idea, name and place would limit the illimitable. But we humans who live in time and space sometimes need symbols in time and space to evoke the indwelling of holiness in our earthly lives. A fire that never goes out – burning bright, radiating light and symbolizing purity, spirituality and community – is a fitting symbol for Shechinah, the indwelling presence of divinity within and among us.
The ner tamid therefore also symbolizes the soul. It is said that in each of us shines a nitzutz (spark) of divinity, as timeless as the light of creation itself. The ner tamid lights the Ark but also shines within us. It is the calling of spiritual life to feed our inner flame and remove obstacles that keep its light from shining bright.
So the next time you’re in a synagogue, look above the Ark at the ner tamid, and check in with your own “eternal flame” inside. Tend it lovingly, join community and feed it so it shines bright.