April 10, 2024
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April 10, 2024
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The Maggid of Bergenfield: Tetzaveh: The Non-Eternal Flame


“What is it, Josh?”

“Look up at the ner tamid,” he whispered.

“I see it, Josh. What about it?”

“The light is out.”

Jeff Lerner looked up at the ner tamid, the eternal light, in front of the aron kodesh in their synagogue. It was a small red and orange fixture in the shape of a flame that hung from the ceiling on a gold chain. Sure enough, the light was out.

“Oh, yeah. You’re right, Josh. Good catch.”

Jeff went back to his davening, but his son continued to stare up at the extinguished ner tamid, distracted from his prayers.


“What, Josh?”

“What does that mean?”

“What does what mean?”

“What does it mean that the ner tamid is out? Isn’t it supposed to be on all the time?”

“It means that Ray was out of town this week on business.”


“Ray Garfinkel, the guy who fixes everything that breaks in the shul. He was in Toronto this week on business. I think it was a real estate convention of some sort. He’ll be back tomorrow.”

Again Jeff returned to his prayers and Josh remained fixated on the darkened flame.

“But Dad, what I mean is, what does it mean when the ner tamid goes out in your shul? Is God still there?”

Jeff stopped what he was doing and turned to look at his son. He had forgotten the fascination he too had experienced as a child with regards to the ner tamid. He could remember once sitting in the shtiebel where his parents davened on the Lower East Side when he was a kid, after the shamash had turned off all the lights. The ner tamid, which was a large ornate candelabra with an electric bulb in the center the shape of a candle flame that seemed to magically flicker like a real candle, was the only light still on in the room, and he felt like he was sitting in the presence of God. After everyone left the building, the eternal flame still burned, making you feel like Hashem still occupied your mikdash me’at, your religious sanctuary.

“You know, Josh, this commandment to keep a lamp burning in the Tabernacle is clearly very important. They used only the most pure olive oil to light the flame, which was probably not easy to come by when they were traveling in the wilderness for 40 years, without an olive tree for miles. And it’s probably the only commandment related to the Mishkan that is still observed today in our synagogues.”

“Which shows how important it is to keep the light burning,” Josh said.

“Yes, I suppose,” Jeff continued. “But when Hashem commanded Moshe to light the ner tamid, He said, Veyikach eilecha shemen zayit zach, You should take for yourself pure olive oil. Many commentators feel that the word eilecha, for yourself, means that Hashem was telling Moshe “the light is for you.” In other words, God doesn’t need a light on in the Mishkan. God created light. The ner tamid is for Moshe and the cohanim to be able to see.”

“Okay, Dad.”

“No, I mean it. Some interpret the ner tamid to be a symbol for the light of Torah, and others see it as a symbol for the light that shines outwards and projects onto others when you fulfill a mitzvah. No matter what symbolism you attribute to the eternal flame, God’s presence in the Tabernacle or in our synagogue, as the case may be, remains whether the light is on or not. I like to think Hashem is always there listening to our prayers.”

“I get it,” Josh said.

“So do you know what you do when the light goes out in the ner tamid?”


“You change the light bulb.”

“Very profound, Dad.”

“I try.”

By Larry Stiefel

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