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Parashat Beshalach: In Honor of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. - Get Going!

March 26 , 2021

Parashat Tzav 5781 - An Eternal Flame

I attended rabbinical seminary in New York City, in downtown Manhattan, at the Hebrew Union College. Classes, services, and programs all occur (in a non-pandemic year) in a five story brick building on the NYU campus. In the lowest level, in the basement, students gather to eat, study, and at times, pray together. There is a small ark and chapel set up among large tables, a kitchenette, and a few classrooms.

One day, meeting up with a few friends to study, laptops and volumes of Talmud in hand, we found a table close to the small, portable ark in the back corner of the basement level. Opening our computers, we prepared to read and translate our assignment for the next class. “Oh no,” groaned my friend, “I’m almost out of battery. Anyone see any outlet?”

We looked around, hoping not to move our books, lunches, and devices. “There’s one behind the ark,” suggested a fellow classmate, “but it looks like it’s being used for the Ner Tamid,” for the eternal light glowing softly above the small ark.

“Well,” said the first friend, “Doesn’t this present a challenge? Can I unplug the Ner Tamid to charge my laptop so I can study Talmud??”

We kept the Ner Tamid plugged in that day, and found another table with an outlet. It was a funny moment that sticks with me, and reminds me of our Torah portion this week, Tzav. In it, we read:

“Eish tamid tukad al-hamizbeach, lo tichbeh - Fire shall be kept burning on the alter continually; it shall not go out,” (Lev. 6:6).

Eish tamid, an eternal, continual, perpetual flame, the precedent and origin for the ner tamid above the ark in our sanctuary today. A tradition and symbol carried forward since our wandering in the desert, since our worship at a central Temple in Jerusalem, and to this day.

Chizkuni, the 13th century French commentator, notes that af b’masaot - even in their journeys and wanderings through the desert, our ancestors kept that flame burning, eternally.

It’s fitting to think about our wanderings in the desert on this Shabbat prior to Passover, the festival of our freedom, and festival of our wandering. Although we rejoice at our redemption and celebrate the moment of freedom at the sea with songs, seders, and of course, food - the Exodus was only the beginning of our journey to the Promised Land. We celebrate our freedom from slavery, and we know that the journey in the desert, our wandering in the wilderness, is just beginning.

That journey took, as they say, 40 years. On some days, it certainly feels like 40 years since we have all been together, in person, rejoicing in Shabbat or Passover together. It is hard to believe that this is our second Passover of the pandemic, as we look ahead to a second year of virtual seder. While we so wish we could gather in our social hall for our festive meal, we look forward to joining together, back here on Zoom, on Sunday night at 5, for our annual second night seder. Eish tamid - the eternal flame of our community and our traditions is still burning, even if we cannot physically gather together.

Eish tamid, ner tamid. I am comforted and calmed by the fact that even in our over a year absence from our sanctuary on Broad Street, our Eternal Light still burns brightly above our ark. Take a moment to imagine that light now. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze, if that helps to transport you to our sanctuary, or any sanctuary you are missing right now. Picture the ner tamid, glowing brightly above our ark. It is there, even when we are not. It is standing watch, a perpetual, eternal presence. As we continue to wander through the wilderness, it will be there, like a beacon, ready to welcome us home.

Shabbat shalom.

 

Rabbi Liz P.G. Hirsch
Temple Anshe Amunim | Pittsfield, MA

Mon, September 27 2021 21 Tishrei 5782