I have been thinking about ritual objects. My thoughts are not only about how we use them. Rather they also pertain to how others abuse them.
This week we read some more details about the construction of the tabernacle, in particular instructions for the priestly vestments and a few brief words about the eternal light. “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly (ner tamid). Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over the Ark of the Pact, to burn from evening to morning before the Lord It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.” (Exodus 27:20-21)
In remembrance of the ancient tabernacle and in observance of this commandment, every synagogue has a ner tamid, usually translated as eternal light, situated above its Ark. It would be better to translate tamid however not as “eternal” but as “with unfailing regularity.” It was not that the ner tamid remained perpetually burning, as if by miracle, it was instead that this light had to be regularly tended. The medieval sage, Nachmanides, suggests that the ner tamid was also used to light the seven-branch menorah that stood in the Temple.
As I think about this menorah, my mind often wanders not to how these objects adorn so many synagogues, but instead to the Arch of Titus. There on that Roman arch are the reliefs of Jewish slaves being marched to Rome from their destroyed Jerusalem. There as well is the image of the menorah being carted away as a spoil of war. I also recall the many photographs of our recent enemies burning Jewish books, in particular the Talmud and the most sacred of all books, our Torah scrolls. Throughout the centuries pillars of fire consumed our most cherished possessions.
I love our Jewish books. I hold sacred our ritual objects. It causes me great pain and distress to imagine these ancient, and modern, destructions. Thus I am sympathetic to the pain caused to Muslims when they hear of their holy Koran being burned. We should remember the pain caused to our people by such fires.
I take issue however with the protestors, and rioters, in Afghanistan when they venerate these objects over human life. As much as I love our books, and as much as it pains me to ponder the Arch of Titus or the images of Nazis burning our Torah scrolls on Kristallnacht, I am more pained by the picture of a young boy standing in fear before a German soldier’s rifle. It is the murder of so many Jews that causes me the greatest pain. For our recent enemies, as well as our ancient, despoiling the sacred led to the murder of the innocent.
Amidst the reports of Afghanis rioting against the American soldiers’ burning of Korans, was another report about four Afghans who were beheaded by the Taliban. These men were accused of spying for the United States. The evidence against them was that they possessed satellite phones. Possession of such new technology is apparently an act of treason.
Veneration of the ancient to the exclusion of the modern is a belief we still confront. It is this view that sees human beings as but subjects of an ancient book. It is this view that makes human life secondary to ritual objects. It is my view, and the belief of our Jewish tradition, that human life takes precedence over all else, even our most sacred objects, even our most cherished books.
Jewish law states that we can even sell the community’s Torah scroll in order to ransom a captive. Even the most sacred of our possessions must serve human life. They are never of greater value than the most treasured of God’s gifts, life. I long for Afghans to protest against the murder of their countrymen by their co-religionists. I long for Afghans to rise up against those who would take life. I long for Muslims to stand up and say the Koran that they revere demands that they place human life first and foremost.
I remain sympathetic to the pain that burning a Koran engenders. I share this commitment to the holy. I would most certainly cry if I were to see a Torah scroll burned. Yet I long to hear something greater than these cries. Instead all I hear is silence. There is only deafening silence in the face of murder.
It is far too easy to clamor against what others do to us, to speak of victimization and defamation. It is far too easy to speak of how others trample on what we hold most dear, what we revere as sacred. But the most holy of tasks, the greatest of challenges, is always to speak of how we might change, what we might be doing wrong, to criticize our closest friends, our family and ourselves. This remains the most difficult of tasks.
In the end these are the fires that must be continually tended. We must not expect that they will burn eternally, as if by miracle. From evening until morning we must tend to these fires.