Parashah of the week: Emor

“Command the Israelite people to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly” Leviticus 24:2


Synagogues are typically equipped with a ner tamid, the so-called eternal flame that is generally represented by a tiny flickering lightbulb displayed above the ark. This light commemorates the flame mentioned in this week’s Torah portion but does not reflect the actual meaning of the phrase.

The ner tamid  is not a lamp that is always burning, but rather, a  lamp that is always being lit.

While the word tamid in Hebrew could be translated as “eternally,” the wording here suggests the lamp is to be kindled on a regular basis. According to Rashi, this parallels the korban tamid, or “regular sacrifice,” which was offered daily, but not constantly. Birkat Asher, a modern commentary on Rashi, emphasises that Rashi is trying to help the reader avoid the easily-made mistake of thinking that this means “without pause.”

A light that burns forever would require refilling the oil from time to time — or in modern times, replacing the bulb. A light that is lit regularly, on the other hand, requires a daily investment of time.

The Midrash points out that the many candles in the Tabernacle are intended to benefit not the Divine, but rather, to encourage the humans involved in Temple services to spread the light. “When Solomon built the Temple [the windows] were narrow on the inside and broad on the outside, so that the light would go out from the Temple and shine outside” (Bemidbar Rabbah, 15).

What we need in our lives, according to the Midrash, is the reminder that it is our job to spread light in the world. This was the function of the Temple. No matter how tired or “burned out” we feel, this is our job, day in and day out: to spread light in the world.

We may know that this is our role, but it is easy to be distracted, or to make other choices instead. Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, explained: “Ritual creates new habits of the heart that can lift us to unexpected greatness.” When we do things on a daily basis, they become habits ingrained in our lives.

It may be a seemingly small act of kindness, a regular habit of reaching out to others, or a daily contribution to charity. These habits can ensure that the mission to spread light in the world is deeply ingrained in our souls, so that when faced with an opportunity to act on a larger scale, we are prepared to rise to the challenge.

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