This week’s reading, the second having to do with the wilderness “Dwelling” or Tabernacle, spends a good deal of time on the priestly garments, especially Aharon’s as “Great Priest” (High Priest). There are several things of note here. First, the prominence of objects made out of gold reflects the use of the precious metal throughout the Dwelling, meant to point to the perfection of the divine. Second, the priest’s body parts are frequently mentioned in this reading, from the brow to the heart to the extremities, symbolized by the thumbs and the “thumb-toes” (big toes)–all to indicate his consecration and task to represent the people of Israel “in the presence of God.”
The beginning of the section, however, concerns something less impressive but nevertheless significant. The text reads in Ex. 27:20:
Now you / command the Children of Israel, / that they may fetch you / oil of olives, clear, beaten, / for the light, / to draw up a lamp, regularly.
The Hebrew phrase in the last line, ner tamid, refers to a lamp burning originally in the First and Second Temples, and later, down to the present day, in synagogues. In the latter usage, it is often translated as “Eternal Light,” kept on perpetually by electricity, although the biblical phrase seems rather to refer to an oil lamp that is lit only for the nighttime hours. “Eternal light” has other resonances outside of the Bible; poet Seamus Haney, for instance, recalled the brightness of his grandmother’s house using the phrase in the Catholic Mass for the Dead: Et lux perpetua luceat eis, “And let perpetual light shine upon them.”
If the biblical ner tamid is not in fact a perpetual light, like those flames at Tombs of Unknown Soldiers around the world, what can we extrapolate from it?
Let me start with the use of olive oil for the lamp, in the context of the particular moment in the book of Exodus. This comes at a transition point in the narrative, moving from the previous detailed description of the portable sanctuary’s structure and appurtenances to a focus on the personnel who will serve there. For olive oil will reappear in 29:7 as an agent for anointing Aharon and in 29:20 for anointing the sacred garments.
But what of the lamp itself? As a flame that illumines the darkness, suggesting the divine presence even in the midst of night, like the “column of fire” that accompanied the Israelites through the wilderness (see Ex. 13:21-2), it would seem to need little explanation on the surface. Indeed, religious texts from many traditions frequently speak of the importance of illumination (full disclosure: the seal of Clark University, where I teach, displays “Fiat lux,” “Let there be light,” from the Latin translation of Gen. 1:3). But the Rabbis of the Roman period suggest a different emphasis. In Midrash Genesis Rabbah XXXVI:2 and 3, they picture God as saying: “Not that I need them [for light], but in order for you to give Me light as I give light to you.” Unexpectedly, the idea of reciprocity is at work here. And what is the light that we are to give back, so to speak? The Midrash talks about two manifestations of such light: the study of Torah and the giving of charity. Such thoughts are hinted at already in the book of Proverbs (6:23): “For the commandment is a lamp, and the teaching is light.” “The commandment” is understood by the Rabbis to refer specifically to charity, and “the teaching,” of course, is seen as Torah.
The light shining in the sanctuary thus serves not only to illuminate the lives of individual and community, but also, in this reading, functions as a beacon, to spur us on to active deeds, as shedders of light, in a world sorely in need of them.