Friday, February 15, 2019 /10 Adar, 5779
Parashat T’tzaveh Exodus 27:20-30:10
Reading this week’s Torah portion, with its instruction to bring oil “for lighting, for kindling lamps continually” (Ex. 27:20) – the Ner Tamid – reminds me of an episode which I experienced in the early 90’s when I was Associate Rabbi of a large East Coast synagogue, which illustrated for me the power of the Ner Tamid.
That Temple was massive – its sanctuary sat over a thousand, and was expandable to 2000 for the High Holy Days. Its sanctuary was about seven or eight stories tall, with four huge arches, and was designed by the famous architect, Walter Gropius. Being a student of the ancient Temple, Gropius tried to include elements which were invoked by our reading of Exodus, today, including the Ner Tamid. He designed a large gas jet which stood out from, and above, the thirty-foot tall doors to the Ark, which were shaped like the tablets of the Ten Commandments. The gas jet sent a five foot flame of orange fire upwards at the front of the sanctuary, and when it was quiet and still, one could actually hear the jet and the flame. It gave life to our Torah verse from Exodus.
And, just prior to my coming to that Temple, they completed an addition and added a smaller chapel, modeled on the main sanctuary, which also had a gas jet for its Ner Tamid.
One afternoon, I was about to rehearse a class of students who were going to lead a Family Shabbat service that coming Shabbat. We marched to the doors of the Chapel, and the students waited outside while I entered to turn on the lights. I then called the students, but to my surprise, they refused to enter the room. They explained by excitedly pointing upwards: above the ark the flame was not burning! It was silent and dark!
Unbeknownst to the children, a utility team had cut off gas to the neighborhood to do a repair nearby. However, the children were more sensitive and aware than was I – they intuited that the chapel was no longer the Makom Kodesh – the Holy Place – when it was silent and dark without the flame! Of course, I explained and cajoled, but more than teaching the children a lesson, they taught me one, the icons, symbols and sacred elements of our holy space matter! Our comfort with the holy and the numinous depends on the environment nurturing and sheltering us, and being dramatic and awesome, as well.
This week, in two simple verses, the Torah gives the command to light our New Tamid. And, to paraphrase the poet, Ahad Ha’am, over the millennia, as much as we have sustained the light, the light has sustained us!
Rabbi Doug Kohn