The Ner Tamid, the eternal light that is such a powerful symbol in the synagogue, has its origins in this week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh. Through Moses, God commands Aaron to gather pure olive oil to establish this Ner Tamid. Aaron and his sons are to set up these lamps “in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact” (Exodus 27:21).
While the Torah is giving us a specific picture of the one place for these lamps to be set up, there’s also something quirky about the language–inside the Tent, but outside the curtain. Noticing this inside/outside contrast, Rabbi Yosef Patznovsky (Lodz, 20th century) suggests that the Ner Tamid, the Divine guiding light that we are all capable of kindling, must lead us (and follow us) into two spaces. The first is the Ohel Mo’ed, the Tent of Meeting, which today exists in the form of the synagogue, the gathering place of the Jewish People for the purposes of seeking God and one another. That, in essence, is the “inside.” The second phrase, mihutz laparokhet, outside the curtain, represents every place that isn’t the ohel mo’ed–the public square, the workplace, wherever people exist in interaction with one another. It is not sufficient to be conscious of this Divine light when inside religious edifaces; we need to bring it everywhere we go.
Once upon a time, Israelite religion was limited to a particular location. The Tent of Meeting, the sacred space of the Mishkan, was later replaced by a permanent sanctuary, the Temple. The synagogue coexisted with the Second Temple as a central communal location, but with that Temple’s destruction in 70 C.E., Israelite religion had to become portable. That, to my mind, is when Judaism was truly born. But the Torah, as we saw above, was hinting at that need for portability centuries earlier.
Our affirmation of the need for an Eternal Light even outside the Temple or synagogue, whatever the name for the ritual meeting place, is expressed whenever we consider such topics as Jewish ethics in the marketplace. I like the phrase “moral compass,” but I think the Ner Tamid is a nicer image. As long as the fiery pursuit of morality burns within us, its light will guide us on the proper path.