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Lighting Jewish Flames

“What happened to the old eternal light? If it is eternal, how can it be replaced?” the seventh graders asked when our first class met in our newly renovated sanctuary. My answer that the new light is more beautiful and uses an energy saving LED bulb was met with disapproval. “It’s eternal!” they shouted back.

I realized that as far as they are concerned our synagogue has always existed. The founding date of 1963 is just as distant as 1948, or for that matter, 70 C.E. This synagogue is the only place most of them have ever known. I imagine they also think this Jewish space will exist forever. Their synagogue is as eternal as the eternal light. Their questions made me realize that eternity is more about memory than fact. This can be a jarring realization.

Every synagogue has an eternal light. In some they are modern. In others more traditional. I cannot think of a synagogue without this familiar symbol. The term, however, suggests a misunderstanding of the Torah’s intention.

The Torah commands, “You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly (ner tamid).” (Exodus 27) We are supposed to light this lamp regularly. In fact, the Bible suggests that the lamp was only lit during the evening hours to illuminate the darkness. In later times, the light was kindled two times a day, in the morning and evening, corresponding to the times for prayer services.

It appears that the eternal light with which we are familiar and which we associate with a synagogue’s sanctuary did not become commonplace until the seventeenth century. Even its Hebrew name suggests that it is anything but eternal. Ner tamid should be more accurately translated as “regular light” or even “always light.” It is up to us to light it.

It is also up to us to invest it with meaning. Symbols are about the meaning we assign to them. We like to believe that such things are eternal. We like to think that the symbols we find meaningful have always been part of synagogue architecture and design. Here is the truth we do not wish to admit. Symbols evolve. They change as we march through history. Sometimes a symbol that once had a negative association takes on positive meaning.

The Jewish star, for example, is more recent than one might suspect. Its wider use is traced again to the seventeenth century and the Jewish quarter of Vienna. There it was used to demarcate the Jewish neighborhood. And it appears that it was also at this time that the star began to be incorporated in more synagogue buildings.

It was not until the Zionist movement in the nineteenth century that the Jewish star began to be used in a more positive way. Since the founding of the State of Israel, the star has become for many Jews a source of pride.

People will object. And some might even get angry. They will say, “King David had this star emblazoned on his shield!” This is not true even though the star is called a Magen David, the shield of David. There is no evidence to suggest that its use in association with Jews and Judaism predates the Medieval period.

Hundreds and hundreds of years ago do at times appear like an eternity ago. No symbol is eternal. We invest meaning in the objects adorning our sanctuaries. We assign their importance in our minds. Our memories, especially those from our younger years, make us believe that the symbolic objects we saw back then are as eternal as the world itself.

And so, when looking at the ner tamid, burning brightly above our beautiful Ark holding our sacred Torah scrolls, I would suggest we ask ourselves these questions, “What am I going to do to make sure this light always remains illuminated? What am I go to do to keep the flames of Jewish life burning for generations to come?”

A symbol is supposed to spark an inspiration.

The eternal light is only eternal if we make it so.