One of the artifacts of any synagogue is its ner tamid – the eternal light
placed near the Holy Ark that contains the scrolls of the Torah. The
origin of the ner tamid is found in this week’s parsha of Tzav. Here the
Jewish people are commanded by God to have an eternal flame constantly
burning on the altar of the Mishkan and later in the temple in Jerusalem.
The Midrash teaches us that the flame on the altar resembles a crouching
lion and was miraculous in the fact that even when the altar was covered
with its protective cloth, while being transported in the desert, the
flame was not extinguished nor did it burn the cloth.
This miraculous permanent flame is a further symbol of God’s eternal
presence amongst Israel. But the flame symbolizes more than that. It is
the symbol of the light of the Torah and the warmth that traditional
Jewish life always represents. It teaches the lesson of eternity - of the
long view of life and events, and of the unquenchable love between God and
His people and of the Jewish people and their Torah. King Solomon in Shir
Hashirim describes it: “[Even} the great waters cannot quench [the fire
of] love” that exists between God and Israel and Israel and the Torah.
That fire is a crouching lion always ready to burst forth and pounce on
the opportunity to show its love and tenacity regarding God and His Torah.
It is truly the fire of eternity that has preserved Israel till this very
The kohanim –the priests, the descendants of Aharon – were responsible for
the maintenance of the eternal fire. Today, we are all responsible for the
preservation of that eternal flame within our families, communities and
the Jewish people as a whole There is no doubt that we are aided in this
task by the Divine Will that has always fueled that eternal flame. But
Heaven’s aid in no way diminishes our responsibility towards the
preservation of that flame. The rabbis of the Talmud long ago warned us
that ein somchin al haness – it is forbidden to rely upon miracles to save
and preserve us. It is our tenacity to tradition and Torah that creates
the miracles, so to speak, which guarantee our continued survival,
creativity and vitality.
The eternal flame marches with us through all of our history. It has the
great quality of warming and comforting us and yet does not burn or singe
us. The Torah emphatically warns us lo tichbeh – do not allow that fire to
be extinguished. Study, Torah education, observance, moral behavior, and
an optimistic view are all the means to preserve this fire and not allow
it to be extinguished. In a world that contains vast patches of darkness
and despair, the crouching lion flame of Jewish tradition lights our way
towards a better future and a more meaningful present. Our success in
preserving this flame and passing it on to future generations is the true
challenge and test of our generation. We cannot in any way fail this test.