David Harbater
Author, educator and scholar

The Ner Tamid in our lives today

When I was a young boy, I was fascinated by the Ner Tamid — the “Eternal Light” — that hung above the ark of my local synagogue. It was, of course, an electric light, but it had a certain flicker that was meant to remind us of the light that once burned in the menorah of the Temple and that represented God’s continued presence in our midst today. I was told at the time that this light would never burn out because God would never allow his eternal flame to be extinguished. It was, in short, an ongoing miracle and what could be more fascinating for a child than that?

When I grew up, however, I realized that no such miracle had occurred in our synagogue and that the Ner Tamid remained on at all times because the electric switch was simply never turned off. And when I later learned the Torah cantillation notes and tropes (טעמי המקרא), I discovered that there may be no such thing at all as a Ner Tamid.

Parashat Tetzaveh that we read this week opens with God’s instructions regarding the kindling of the menorah in the Tabernacle. Here is the Hebrew original: וְאַתָּ֞ה תְּצַוֶּ֣ה | אֶת-בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֗ל וְיִקְח֨וּ אֵלֶ֜יךָ שֶׁ֣מֶן זַ֥יִת זָ֛ךְ כָּתִ֖ית לַמָּא֑וֹר לְהַֽעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר תָּמִֽיד.

In the first half of this verse, God tells Moses that the oil to be used for the menorah should be clear and of beaten olives. What God says in the second half of the verse, however, is somewhat ambiguous. Is the word “תָּמִֽיד”-tamid-an adjective describing the nature of the ner- the light, or is it an adverb explaining the way in which the ner is to be kindled?

The cantillation marks under the words “לְהַֽעֲלֹ֥ת נֵ֖ר”” are merchah tipchah (מרכא טפחא) followed by a sof pasuk (סוף פסוק) under the word “תָּמִֽיד”. Whenever a tipchah follows a merchah and before a sof pasuk the tipchah is related to the former, not the latter. Thus, based on the cantillation marks, the correct translation of this phrase is “for kindling a light regularly”, and not “for kindling an eternal light”. According to this rendering there is no such thing as a ner tamid– a light that is meant to be lit in perpetuity and never to be extinguished- but rather a ner that is meant to be lit regularly, i.e., every evening, on the assumption that it burns out at some point during the course of the day. Indeed, this is Rashi’s interpretation as well.

The Ramban, on the other hand, maintains that one of the lights of the menorah must remain lit at all times and it is from this one light that all the other lights are to be kindled every evening. In other words, contrary to the cantillation marks and to Rashi, the Ramban understands this verse as requiring an actual ner tamid, an eternal light.

Many years ago, Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein offered a profound insight into this dispute which I believe has particular relevance to us during these times. He said that both views are correct and they reflect two aspects of the religious experience. We are called upon to kindle the light of Torah and religion every day, as if we are doing so for the very first time. But when we kindle the light each day it should not merely be sufficient to last until the morning but it should have the staying power to last in perpetuity.

Some people experience moments of religious fervor and enthusiasm but these moments tend to wear off over time. Others live committed religious lives but do so without passion and moments of inspiration, yet without such moments religion can become routine and burdensome. The key, claims Rav Lichtenstein, is to kindle a ner anew each and every day, but also to ensure that the ner is tamid, that is has long-lasting power and impact.

One of the unexpected consequences of the horrible Hamas attack of October 7 and of the subsequent war has been the kindling of a great light-a ner- among Jews in Israel and around the world. The support for the bereaved families, for the tens of thousands who have been forced to leave their home in the north and in the south, and for the soldiers who have been putting their lives on the line for over four months, and the solidarity that we have shown toward one another despite our differences, have been nothing short of breathtaking. But we all know that the challenge we face is to maintain this great light in the months and years ahead—tamid—after the war is over.

Let us hope and pray that we find a way to answer God’s call and transform the ner that we have lit recently into a ner tamid—an eternal light

About the Author
Rabbi Dr. David Harbater's recently published book "In the Beginnings: Discovering the Two Worldviews Hidden within Genesis 1-11" is available on Amazon and at book stores around Israel and the US. He teaches Bible and Jewish thought at Midreshet Torah V'Avodah, at the Amudim Seminary, and at the Women's Beit Midrash of Efrat. Make sure to follow him on Facebook and LinkedIn for more interesting content.
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