You shall instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, to keep the lamps burning continuously. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting. . . [to burn] from evening to morning before the Holy One. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.
This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, offers the model for the Eternal Light (ner tamid) that burns before the ark in every synagogue. The original context refers to the portable sanctuary that the Israelites carried through the desert; later it was applied to the Temple in Jerusalem. After the Temple was destroyed, the Eternal Light became an essential piece of synagogue architecture; the commentator Ibn Ezra proclaims this an obligation applicable for all future generations. It’s not clear in the Torah whether this flame was actually maintained 24/7, but that has become the custom in sanctuaries around the world today (with some thanks to very long-lasting light bulbs). Most Jews understand it as a reminder of the constancy of God’s Presence.
In 1978, one of my Jewish heroes, Rabbi Everett Gendler, led his congregation in Lowell, Massachusetts to install the first solar-powered Eternal Light. He recognized the unique facility of this ancient Jewish symbol to speak to the connection between Judaism and environmentalism. For Rabbi Gendler and his community, the ner tamid became a model and inspiration for sustainable living.
I hope that in the coming months, our “Greening CABI” task force will explore this idea—and others—as we seek to significantly lower our congregation’s carbon footprint. What could be more apt than starting with this classic sign of God’s constancy? To light our sanctuary with the always-renewable energy of the sun is a sacred path. It’s just a start, of course, but what a wonderful way to encourage discussion—and action—around the sources of energy we employ, at shul and at home, too.
Light is, of course, the very first thing that God creates in the book of Genesis—and for many of us, it marks the beginning of a new day. Luminosity is, therefore, almost always associated with holiness. Psalm 97 proclaims: Or zarua latzadik—Light is sown for the righteous!
May we sow the seeds of sacredness and stewardship with the light and power we choose to illuminate CABI.