20 Iyar 5772 / May 11-12, 2012
God spoke to Moses, saying:
“Command the Children of Israel that they take to you clear olive oil, pressed for lighting, to kindle a continual lamp. Outside the Curtain of the Testimony, in the Tent of Meeting, Aaron shall arrange it, from evening to morning, before God, continually; an eternal decree for your generations.”
In this week’s portion, we are commanded to kindle an eternal flame.
While the commandment was specific to the Holy Temple in Jerusalem which has since been destroyed, we find this commandment acknowledged in most synagogues, where there is an “eternal light” that hangs over the Ark. The light has come to symbolize not only the ancient lamp in the Temple and its eternal flame, but God’s unwavering presence in the world.
Fire and its accompanying light are quite significant in our Jewish tradition.
We light candles to sanctify the Sabbath.
We light a Havdallah candle to signify the Sabbath’s end.
We light yahrtzeit candles to remember loved ones on their death anniversaries.
We celebrate the story of Hannukkah – the Festival of Lights – which the ancient rabbis teach was partially about how our ancestors were afraid that the eternal flame described in the Biblical verse above would go out, as they did not have enough pure oil on hand to keep the flame going for two days, let alone eight, once it was rekindled.
Jews are supposedly meant to be “a light unto the nations.”
There is something inherently holy about fire.
I watched a Ted Talk this week called “5 dangerous things you should let your kids do” by Gever Tulley, founder of the Tinkering School. The #1 item on the list was to let kids play with fire, given its mystery and its power as an elemental force of nature. We have all been mesmerized when staring into a flame, and have all been humbled knowing the power that fire can wield.
I also happened to visit a Jewish funeral home this week in Skokie in order to be trained on how to ritually prepare a deceased Jew for burial. While tradition mandates that once a body is prepared, a guardian watch over it at all times before it is buried, this is not practical for many. In lieu of having an individual watch over the body, some have the tradition of lighting a large slow-burning candle, and having the flame serve as the guardian, until the body is buried.
This concept of flame as guardian really resonated with me, and helps me understand why my Israelite ancestors were so diligent about keeping the eternal flame in the Temple lit.
On a purely elemental level, does fire move you? Do other things in nature?
Is it fair to say that the eternal fire that once burned in the Temple now burns within us as Jews?
Let us strive to live our lives in a way that allows us to emanate the glow of the ancient eternal flame.
To sanctify and uplift our lives and the lives of others.
To recognize our vulnerability as humans.
To be a flame for good in the world.