Lighting the Eternal Light

We need more than ever to commit ourselves to the sacred task of igniting the ner tamid and becoming an eternal light of goodness and hope.
February 28, 2024
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Every synagogue you’ve ever visited has one. They come in different shapes and sizes but the origin of each comes from the opening of last week’s Torah portion: “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, in order to cause the light to go up continually” (Ex. 27:20).

In its most literal sense, the verse commands us regarding the special menorah that was situated inside the tabernacle and then later in the Temple in Jerusalem. This menorah is to be a ner tamid, an eternal light—it should never go out.

And so it is, to this very day, that every synagogue includes one, reminding us of our past, reminding us of our destiny.

The commentators of the midrash, however, understood this verse metaphorically. The ner tamid is not a physical lamp; rather, it is merely a reflection of the ultimate light that is according to the rabbis, Torah itself: our wisdom, our learning, everything that gives meaning to our lives.

So if Torah is the eternal light, what is this first verse of Parashat Titzaveh really telling us? What does the olive oil represent? And why should it be pressed? Why this particular detail?

The 20th-century commentator, Ed Ya’aleh (my cousin, Rabbi Eliezer Davidovits, 1878-1941) interprets as follows:

“It is possible to study [Torah] when times are good but this [type of Torah study] usually does not last—it cannot be sustained.  If one wants words of Torah to exist eternally, one must study in poverty and with a broken body and soul … This is the understanding of the verse (‘and they shall bring to you pure olive oil, pressed for lighting…’): that is, one should [be willing to] shatter oneself and be pressed, crushed for the sake of the ‘light (meor)’ that is the Torah. Then and only then can [your Torah study] make of you ‘a ner tamid.’”

It’s a powerful and also disturbing teaching. We think of Torah study as something sweet, something that brings light and joy to our lives. Here, though, we have an image of the student of Torah who is willing, eager even, to suffer for the sake of her learning.

Sadly, Rabbi Davidovits understood this teaching in a deeply personal way. He lived through the rise of Nazism and ultimately succumbed to its horrors. He was murdered along with almost his entire community in 1942. Here’s how his son, Yisrael Ya’acov, described his father: “For over twenty years,” he writes, “[my father] went out to study—rain or shine, summer or winter—at five in the morning. I have been told that even when the time of sorrow for all of Israel had arrived, he went out at risk of his own life early in the morning to learn. [Once] the evil, cursed Hlinka Guards [members of the antisemitic Slovak People’s Party] came and almost killed him. Wefound him outside, unconscious. That generation! Do you realize the feats of our ancestors, how they risked their lives to study Torah?”

My cousin knew what it was to be pressed, to be crushed. He was persecuted, in large part, because of his love of Torah and his allegiance to its values.

He was willing to pursue Torah, to live a loud and proud Jewish life, whatever the cost.

Though unsettling, it is an apt and urgent understanding of the eternal light for this moment of darkness with Israel under attack and antisemitism rampant on college campuses and beyond.

I’m inspired by this teaching, notwithstanding its challenges. At just such a time of being “pressed” in so many different ways, we need more than ever to commit ourselves to the work of causing the light to go up, the sacred task of igniting the ner tamid and, in so doing, becoming a ner tamid: an eternal light of goodness and hope.

May the light go up and up, forever.

Rabbi Yoshi Zweiback is the Senior Rabbi of Stephen Wise Temple in Los Angeles, California.

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