Many of the ritual objects associated with synagogue architecture derive from the descriptions of the Mishkan, or portable sanctuary, from the period of desert wandering following the Exodus. The Aron Kodesh, or Holy Ark, which houses the Torah scrolls, is an extension of the ark in which the Israelites carried the Ten Commandments. The scroll coverings, including the breastplate and the crowns, echo the ritual garb of the high priest.
In this week’s Torah portion, we find an almost off-hand reference to another item found in the Mishkan, which has become a fixture in synagogues worldwide. “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Command the Israelites to bring to you pure beaten olive oil for the light, to provide illumination continually (l’halot ner tamid)” (Leviticus 24:2).
The ner tamid (“eternal light”) is found in synagogues suspended over the ark. It is commonly (although not exclusively) understood to represent the perpetual and persistent presence of God. As a consequence of this understanding, the ner tamid is kept lit at all times.
But a closer examination of the text suggests a difficulty in deriving our current eternal light from the description in Leviticus.
“…Aaron shall arrange for [the light] from evening to morning, before the Lord, continually…upon the purified candlestick shall he arrange the lights before the Lord continually.” (24:3-4)
This seems to suggest that the light within the Mishkan was kindled at sunset, kept burning through the night, and extinguished, or allowed to expire, at daybreak. The nuance of the Hebrew word “tamid” used here is accurately captured in the translation as “continual,” rather than “continuous.” “Continual” refers to an event that recurs regularly, while “continuous” refers to something uninterrupted.
Aaron’s responsibility was to ensure that the ner tamid of the Mishkan was kindled on a regular and repeated basis, but the light itself, contrary to our synagogue ner tamid, was not uninterrupted.
What is even more confusing is the use of an almost identical term to refer to the fire of the Mishkan that was in fact continuous: “Fire shall be kept burning upon the [sacrificial] altar continuously (aish tamid); it shall not go out” (6:6). So apparently there were two fires within the Mishkan system: the continuous altar fire and the continual lampstand.
The distinction has a broader meaning for contemporary Jews than the merely semantic nuances. The two types of fire represent the perhaps unbridgeable gulf between the real and ideal forms of Jewish living.
“You shall speak of [Torah] when you are at home, and when you are outside, when you lie down, and when you rise up” is the way Deuteronomy puts it. (6:7) The language suggests a common meaning of “always”: uninterrupted pursuit of Torah study and, by extension, of Jewish living. For a significant part of our tradition, this is the ideal way to live a Jewish life: undistracted by the wider world, totally focused on Judaism, devoted only to study, mitzvot, and the worship of God.
The reality, however, is that the vast majority of Jews live a continual, rather than a continuous, Jewish life. At a regular interval — daily, weekly, monthly, perhaps only annually — they set aside time to focus on some aspect of Jewish observance and Jewish living. But the rest of their lives are occupied with living within the wider civilization. Judaism is an aspect of their lives, but not the permeating presence that the tradition often holds up as the ideal.
The fact is, as anticipated in the Mishkan system, we need both kinds of Jews. We need those whose passion for Jewish living enables them to be “on” all the time, like the fire on the altar, whose every act is infused by Jewish values, surrounded by Jewish rituals, and lived out within a Jewish community.
But we also need Jews who can, as it were, occasionally be “off,” like the candelabrum, who venture out into the wider world to discover those aspects of the larger civilization that can infuse Judaism with a renewed vitality. Jewish tradition has evolved and changed — and survived — over the centuries precisely because of the willingness to look beyond the boundaries of our community.
(Jewish religious thought, for example, was greatly enriched by the great medieval teacher Maimonides, who himself studied the works of Aristotle and used that information to further shape his own thinking.)
To give the obvious contemporary example: We needed those Jews who discovered and explored the emerging issues of feminism to bring that revolutionary way of thinking from the general culture into Jewish life.
As the ancient Mishkan endorsed both types of “tamid” light, so should we as a community be able to embrace and include all Jews — those whose commitments are regular and reliable and those whose devotion is daily and unwavering — under the heading of klal Yisrael, the Jewish people.