The Torah reading of this week establishes for us the commandment of having an eternal flame burn in the Mishkan and later in the Temple in Jerusalem as well. This commandment is repeated regarding the Alter in the Mishkan and in the Temple where an eternal flame was also to be present on the Alter of sacrifices. The concept and symbol of an eternal flame has been repeated throughout Jewish history and is found to be present in all Jewish synagogues throughout the world and throughout the ages.
I have often wondered as to the significance of a flame of fire somehow representing eternity. I think that this has to do with the fact that the Torah instructs us to imitate our Creator to the extent that is humanly possible. The first creation of God, so to speak, was light, energy, fire if you will. The first invention of man according to Midrash was at the conclusion of the Sabbath when human beings first learned how to create fire. It is the origin of our custom in the Havdala service to have a fire lit, over which we bless God for allowing us to create this most necessary of all human inventions.
Fire is a double -edged sword. It warms and lights and it damages and destroys. Like all human inventions, especially those of our modern world over the past century, the use of all inventions contains ambivalence. The invention can be used for great and good things and it also can destroy all that has been accomplished.
Fire therefore represents the human capacity for good and for evil. The Torah teaches us that this capacity is an eternal one and that the challenge of having good triumph over evil never disappears. Good provides eternal energy and drives the engine of morality and holiness. Evil also contributes to the advancement of civilization though it must always be controlled and dominated by the good sense of morality that is innate within us.
Most advancements in medicine have occurred through discoveries made in trying to heal the wounds of war and violence and the prevention of the spread of plagues and epidemics. In effect, the fire of creativity that is the hallmark of human beings, from infancy onwards, is an eternal gift that the Lord has bestowed upon us. This is perhaps part of the symbolism of the eternal flame described in this week’s Torah reading.
Our sense of creativity is symbolized by the eternal flame that burns in our houses of worship. But that flame also burns deep within the the soul of human beings. It is that internal flame that can and should be converted to an eternal flame by good deeds, moral values, and good intentions. Human beings require symbols to actuate noble values and ideas. All the symbols that appear in the Mishkan come to reinforce the value system that the Torah teaches us. An eternal flame represents much more than the burning wick of a candle.
Rabbi Berel Wein