The Meaning of the Eternal Light

Sermon delivered on June 13, 2008, by Rabbi Barry H. D. Block

One June night, some years ago, I was officiating at TOT Shabbat in the Oppenheimer Chapel. I was on the bimah with a dozen or more pre-school aged children, while their parents were in the pews. Suddenly, we experienced a power outage. Now remember, the Oppenheimer Chapel has no windows, no natural light; so without electricity, the room is entirely dark.

Fortunately, we did have just a bit of light. The Eternal Light, suspended above the Holy Ark, remained illuminated. I began to talk with the young children about the meaning of the Eternal Light. Everybody present was deeply moved that this most spiritual of light bulbs was still burning, together with only the Shabbat candles.

Nobody was ever able to explain why the Eternal Light kept shining. It has no backup power, and does not run on a separate energy source. The not-so-dramatic anti-climax of the story is that the light wasn’t as eternal as it initially seemed. Within a minute or so of the initial power outage, that most holy of lights also went dark.

What’s so special about the Eternal Light?

Let’s be clear: At one level, it’s just a light bulb. Here at Temple Beth-El, the bulb is replaced on a regular schedule, and always right before the High Holy Days. It’s one bulb that doesn’t have to burn out before it is changed. And yet, just like the President who puts on his pants one leg at a time, that light bulb is unscrewed, and a new one screwed in, just like any other.

I have seen, and participated in, other kinds of Eternal Lights.

In the late 1980s, I took a year out of my rabbinical studies, and served as an intern at Touro Synagogue in New Orleans. When I arrived, construction of a new chapel was near completion. One day, the Rabbi said, “Let’s go.” We went to the French Quarter, to a Royal Street antique store owned by a synagogue member. There we selected a brass lamp, really rather ordinary, from which the proprietor removed all but the base. The lamp was ultimately installed atop the beautiful new wooden Ark, and a gas line was run through it, in place of the original electrical apparatus. To this day, unless the gas goes out, a flame burns atop that lamp base at all times.

Then, the first year that I was an ordained Rabbi, I served at North Shore Congregation Israel in the Chicago suburbs. There, in the smaller chapel, the Eternal Light is a large candle, at least six inches in diameter, suspended on a stand above the Ark. Each week, before Confirmation classes, the custodians would put a ladder and a fresh candle in the chapel. The class would gather around, and one member would climb to the top of the ladder, light the new candle from the old one, remove and extinguish the old candle, and place the new one on the stand.

The ritual was dramatic, and conveyed a clear message: These young Jews would be responsible for assuring that the light of Judaism would continue to shine. Maintaining the Eternal Light in the chapel was a rather powerful, tangible symbol of that responsibility.

At its very essence, of course, the Eternal Light is a symbol. Its name – in Hebrew, Ner Tamid – comes directly from the Torah. However, the Ner Tamid of biblical times was quite different from our Eternal Light today.

In the ancient Temple, the Israelites were commanded to keep a fire burning perpetually upon the altar. Although the word tamid means “always” in Modern Hebrew, we are by no means certain that the biblical Ner Tamid burned twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week. Instead, more likely, the Ner Tamid was rekindled daily and used as a source of fire for offering burnt sacrifice.

Ultimately, the Jerusalem Temple was destroyed, and the synagogue came to replace it, as the gathering place where the Jewish people would pray in community. As time marched forward, some, though not all, of the key Temple ritual items came to be represented in synagogues. Among them was and remains the Ner Tamid.

Of course, we do not offer burnt sacrifices; so our Ner Tamid does not function as it did in the Temple of old. Traditionally, it served as a reminder of what was, and of what our people hoped would be again. Even today, Orthodox Jews look to the day when the synagogue Eternal Light will be replaced by that perpetual flame on the one altar in Jerusalem.

For us, though, the Eternal Light possesses a more symbolic meaning. It represents a light that always shines. Indeed, the Ner Tamid points to several fires, ever burning.

Yes, as with that Illinois Confirmation Class, the Ner Tamid reminds us of our everlasting obligation to keep our Jewish faith alive. Our ancestors passed through the flames, literally, to perpetuate our faith. Now, the torch has been passed to us. Observance of Judaism and fidelity to our God are a legacy which we cannot permit to be lost.

But it means so much more.

The Ner Tamid represents the eternality of the Jewish people. At the congregation where I was raised – Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, where Gloria Herman, our Bat Mitzvah’s revered cousin, is a Past President – the Eternal Light takes the form of the burning bush. That humble shrub caught Moses’ eye because, even though it was aflame, the bush was still green. The Ner Tamid reminds us that our people has endured forces that sought to destroy us. Like the Eternal Light, simply continuing to live is one of the Jewish people’s greatest accomplishments. When we are told to despair, whether the alleged assailant be real or imagined – intermarriage and assimilation, anti-Semitism or terrorism – let us keep faith with the Eternal Light: Our People shall yet endure.

Most importantly, the Ner Tamid is a symbol of God’s abiding presence among us.

When our Temple was destroyed, and our ancestors exiled to Babylon, the faith of Israel ought to have died. Such was the fate of every other conquered people whose temple was destroyed. We, though, were blessed with a prophetic message: God would remain alive, even when God’s Temple had been laid waste. God would always love the Children of Israel, even if they were so unfaithful as to incur God’s wrath. Yes, God could judge the people harshly; but God would be loving and merciful forever.

We believe God’s love to be boundless, encompassing not only the Jewish people but all humankind. We affirm God’s limitless faithfulness: God, Who cares for us in this life, will never abandon us. We, Who are created in God’s image, are animated by God’s light, shining through us.

When we enter our holy Temple, may we ever look up to the Ner Tamid, burning perpetually above the sacred Ark. Then, may we be inspired ever to uphold our responsibilities to Judaism: past, present and future. Then, may we rejoice in the everlasting faithfulness of our people. Then, may we affirm the eternal presence of our God.