External, internal fires are a divine show of light


Exodus 27:20-30:10

Ezekiel 43:10-27

There are two verses in our Torah portion that complement one another. I am presenting them out of the order that they appear in the biblical text for the sake of illustrating my point. The first text is Exodus 29:42 and it says, “A perpetual burnt offering for your generations at the entrance to the tent of meeting before the Lord, where I shall meet with you there to speak to you.”

God tells the people, I will meet you at the door, at the entrance to the tent of meeting — I will always be there. This is the pivotal statement. God is at the door of the tent, welcoming us in, modeling the correct behavior for us when we encounter others who are on their journey.

The second text is Exodus 27:20: “As for you, you shall command the Israelites that they take you clear oil of beaten olives for the light, to kindle a lamp perpetually.”

U.C. Berkeley biblical scholar Robert Alter explains what it means to kindle a lamp perpetually — the Hebrew word “tamid” means “perpetually,” or “regularly repeated.” Despite the attachment of later Jewish tradition to an “eternal light” (the conventional English rendering of the two words here, “ner tamid”), the clear indication is that the lamp burned from evening until daybreak and was lighted again each evening.

I heard about some elementary school children who visited a synagogue as part of their social studies project. The rabbi explained to them the significance of the various synagogue symbols, including the ner tamid, which burns constantly above the ark. He pointed out the statement, “And you shall command the people of Israel that they bring pure olive oil beaten for the light to cause a lamp to burn continually.”

Shortly after the visit, the rabbi received a package of thank you letters from the youngsters. One was from a fifth-grader who wrote in part, “I especially liked your explanation of the internal light.”

The youngster had stumbled on a profound truth about us. We do indeed each possess an internal light and that may very well be the most important human endowment we receive at birth. It is a spark of divinity kindled within each of us.

The Bible described the internal light in these words: “The spirit of humans is God’s candle.” It is this built-in candle that is our most distinctive quality. It is this light that enables us to distinguish between good and evil, right and wrong, compassion and cruelty, truth and falsehood. It is this unique capacity that sets us apart from the rest of the animal kingdom.

The internal light does more than equip us with the ability to make moral distinctions and decisions. It also confers upon each of us supreme value. We are each special and unique. We are each a sacred refraction of divinity. God has shared with every one of us a measure of Divine illumination.

How much we value our inner selves is a crucial dimension of our personalities. It affects every aspect of our behavior. Our ability to learn and grow, our choice of companions and mates, our likelihood of succeeding in our chosen vocation are all intimately related to the degree of our self-esteem.

One of the most nourishing ways to enhance our self-esteem is to remind ourselves that we are each the bearers of God’s candle. To be human is to be distinguished, to possess infinite worth. A few years ago there was an illustration in the newspaper that showed a small boy with big wistful eyes, his hair flopping over his forehead. He is surrounded by these words: “I Know I’m Somebody ‘Cause God Don’t Make No Junk.”

Abraham Lincoln was profoundly aware of the importance of keeping aglow the internal light. “I desire,” he wrote, “so to conduct the affairs of this administration that if at the end, when I come to lay down the reins of power, I have lost every other friend on earth, I shall at least have one friend left, and that friend will be deep inside me.”

As I learned from Rabbi Sidney Greenberg, a mensch strives at all times to stay on the best of terms with the friend inside.

Rabbi Larry Raphael is the senior rabbi of Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco.