By Rabbi Frederick Reeves, Guest Torah Columnist
Torah Portion: Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20−30:10)
The Book of Psalms contains many praises of the Eternal One, and I have always been deeply moved by the eighth verse of Psalm sixteen: “I have placed the Eternal always before me.” In Hebrew, Shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid. In this one verse, the psalmist is proclaiming his complete trust, faithfulness, and devotion to the Eternal. I have placed the Eternal always before me – not my family, not my country, not myself, but G-d. G-d is of ultimate importance to how the Psalmist sees himself. The idea behind this verse becomes a model for a contemplative practice; the word Shiviti is the name of a genre of religious art which contains this verse and frequently Psalm 67 written in the form of a menorah which is then used as a focus for meditation on G-d’s name.
As we turn to this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, another connection between this verse and the menorah is made. This verse from Psalm 16 is relevant to the Menorah because the final word of the verse echoes loudly with an important element in this week’s Torah portion. Shiviti Hashem l’negdi tamid. Tamid. Always.
In Tetzaveh, we learn about the Neir Tamid, the Eternal Light. This is the light that the Torah instructs us to kindle every night in the Menorah first in the Tent of Meeting, and then later in the Temple in Jerusalem. Today, we treat the phrase Neir Tamid as if it were a combined name of an object – the Eternal Light – and we place a light which is always on in our synagogues. In the Torah text itself, the word tamid is functioning as an adverb describing the act of kindling. We read, V’atah t’tzaveh et b’nei Yisrael v’yik’chu eilecha shemen zait lama-or l’ha-alot neir tamid – You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. (JPS translation) It must be an adverb here because one cannot be eternally kindling – it just doesn’t make any sense. Rather, the light is kindled regularly.
When asked what the Neir Tamid in our synagogue represents, I give my standard rabbi answer: “It represents G-d’s presence in our midst. It is always on because G-d is always with us.” Does that mean that G-d is only in the synagogue? No, but the hope is that we do experience G-d there. But there is the rub. We do not always experience G-d in the synagogue. For some of us, we do not experience G-d ever in the synagogue. And for others of us, we do not experience G-d at all. The contemplative practice of Shiviti that I described above is fine for some, but for others in our community it would be difficult for a host of reasons.
Maybe it’s OK if we do not have an experience of G-d. There are many activities that make up a Jewish life, and encountering G-d in worship is only one of them. We also make connections between people, study, perform social justice projects, celebrate holidays — the list could go on and on. Each one of these activities is a way that we can make meaning by enriching our lives with Judaism.
We should take some time and consider what we each hold as the one essential element of our own Jewish practice. It could be Israel, helping people who are hungry, celebrating the holidays, advocating against anti-Semitism, keeping kosher. There is a whole range of possibilities, and whatever it is does not matter. Do not misunderstand me; I am not saying that there is only one thing that we do, but I am suggesting that we prioritize one thing over others. That we make that one thing a neir tamid for us.
If we each have a neir tamid, an action or a concept that we always place before us, how would that effect our actions? When we make our decisions about what we are going to do, that one item becomes a determining factor. By having this eternal light in our lives, we would have a touchstone upon which we could rely. If people were to ask us what’s important to us about being Jewish, we would have a ready answer. This metaphorical light would brighten up our lives and shine meaning through every nook and cranny of our experience.
As you read this, you are probably not in a synagogue worship space. If you are, look up at the neir tamid. If you are not, take a moment and imagine your synagogue. If there is not a synagogue that you call your own, imagine a light shining in the darkness. Take a moment and think about what your light shining in the darkness could be. How could your regular action be one that lit up the darkness around us? As you are thinking, remember that Judaism recognizes that people are people and that we are not expected to be perfect. In that way, the confusion over the translation of the word tamid is helpful. Yes, our “neir tamid” should always be before us – in the ideal we would be like the psalmist always thinking about that which was most important. But we are human beings, and sometimes our attention wanders. That is where the translation of the word as regular becomes so useful. We regularly focus on those elements of ultimate importance to us; when we notice that our attention has wandered, we can redirect our attention back and redouble our efforts in that direction. We have not failed unless we do not come back to what we have decided is of ultimate import.
May the neir tamid of each of us shine brightly, and may we return regularly to the kindling of it, and in doing so may we bring this world closer to the time when all will be bright and spiritual darkness shall be banished from the world.
Rabbi Frederick Reeves is rabbi of K.A.M. Isaiah Israel (Reform).