Bringing Light to the World

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This week's Torah portion discusses the Ner Tamid, or eternal light, which hangs in every synagogue and represents God’s enduring presence in our midst. 

At the beginning of this week’s Torah portion, the Israelites are commanded to bring “clear oil of beaten olives for lighting the Ner Tamid, the eternal light.” The Ner Tamid burned continuously within the mishkan, the portable desert sanctuary, and later within the walls of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem.
 
Today, above the ark in every synagogue hangs a Ner Tamid to remind us of the light that shone upon our ancestors and, more importantly, of God’s enduring presence in our midst. 
 
Of course, God’s eternal light is not limited to the walls of the synagogue; it can be found anywhere.
 
Recently while making hospital visits, I met a woman recovering from a complicated surgery. As we sat together, she spoke about her illness, the care she had received and her fears about the recovery that lay ahead. She told about friends and family who had supported her and a renewed sense of gratitude she felt for the blessings in her life. 
 
As our visit ended, I offered to say a misheberach, a prayer for healing. At first she was reluctant, but finally told me to go ahead. I chanted the traditional Hebrew words of healing and then continued in English lifting up her pain, fear and desires in prayer. Her eyes filled with tears and I hoped that these words helped her to understand her life as part of a sacred journey.
 
As a chaplain, it is in these moments that I most clearly see the Ner Tamid, God’s radiance. I saw it in this woman’s determination to heal and, later, in the deep love of an elderly couple as they struggled with the indignities of their aging bodies. Another day, God’s light was shining in the courage of a young man as he endured painful medical treatments and in the encouraging and heartfelt words of a nurse to a frightened patient. And always, God’s light can be seen in the tender, caring presence of friends and family as they come together to support a loved one. 
 
The metaphor of light appears throughout the Torah. Light is the first of God’s creations: “And God said: Let there be light. And there was light.” In the book of Proverbs, we read: “For the commandment is a lamp, and the Torah is a light.” The prophet Isaiah taught that Israel is destined to be the “light to the nations” and the psalmist wrote about the individual need for its redemptive power: “The Lord is my light and my salvation.”
 
One midrash on the Ner Tamid describes the human role in this process by equating us with the olive oil and God with the lamp. “What use is made of olive oil? It is put into a lamp, and then the two together give light as though they were one. Hence, God says: My children, since My light is your light and your light is My light, let us go together and give light to the world.”
 
It is an essential Jewish teaching that we are God’s partners in the work of creation. Each of us has our part to play in bringing Divine light into the world — through acts of kindness, the search for wisdom, the fight for justice — the list is endless.
 
As we reflect on the Ner Tamid, may we be blessed to find it shining brightly in our lives. May we understand our unique role in bringing God’s eternal light into the world. And may we witness the illumination of all through wisdom, peace and love.
 
Rabbi Elisa Goldberg is director of Jewish Community Services for Jewish Family and Children’s Service, and co-president of the Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia.

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