by Adi Alouf: Director of Student and Jewish Life, Jewish Studies Teacher 

I was struck by the ner tamid as a kid – the lamp hanging above the ark in the synagogue, harkening back to the Mishkan. Sitting in the pews of a friend’s B-Mitzvah or in tefillah at Brandeis, I’d wonder: Does this light really always stay on? Does someone turn it off at night and then turn it back on in the morning? Is it on a timer? I hoped that even in the middle of the night, when no one was there, the ner tamid still illuminated the ark it hovered above. Perhaps my logistical amusement was an expression of my curiosity about the enduring nature of God’s presence.

In the first two verses of Parshat Tetzaveh, as part of the whole project of constructing the Mishkan, God tells Moses to instruct the Israelites to bring specific oil for lighting, for kindling a light “תמיד” (Exodus 27:20). According to Rashi, תמיד here means regularly, as in the light was kindled every single night. Rashi’s understanding seems to align with my daydream of an imaginary synagogue employee tending to the ner tamid. For me, this seemed like the least holy option – the light wasn’t actually eternal if humans have anything to do with it. According to Sifrei Bamidbar 59 (3rd century midrash) and Or HaChaim (18th century commentary) though, the תמיד refers to the fact that the light was always lit. This interpretation aligns with the faith I had in the perpetual burning of the ner tamid without human intervention. This was the holier light – the truly eternal divine flame.

Hidden within the ner tamid and its understandings lies a profound lesson about the delicate balance between the eternal and the responsibility we bear to tend to what’s sacred in our lives. Even the most enduring elements of our lives require our attention and care. The ner tamid calls on us to tend to the things we consider eternal and unconditional – the things we are sometimes inclined to take for granted. We can fall into the trap, for example, of assuming the perpetuity of a relationship without investing the necessary care and attention. The ner tamid serves as a call to action, urging us to break free from complacency and invest in our sacred bonds.

The eternal requires our active participation. As I read Tetzaveh this year, I see the holiness of Rashi’s תמיד. While I once saw the habitual, human tending to the flame as inferior, I now recognize the holiness inherent in the way we nurture that which is, or at least seems to be, enduring in our lives. When we regularly tend to our relationships – to people, to ourselves, to the world around us – we participate in the holy work of sustaining the divine presence in our lives and in the lives of those around us.