By Rabbi Robert Leib
Step into the Molish Sanctuary at Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington and you’re immediately enveloped by a breathtaking room with a soaring ceiling, continuous red brick walls and warm gold carpeting reminiscent of Sinai’s desert sand.
Designed by noted architect Vincent G. Kling and completed in 1972, this spiritual oasis includes, ipso facto, our award-winning aron kodesh, holy ark, and Ner Tamid, eternal light, both designed by the late Hungarian architect Mark Zubar.
Our Ner Tamid consists of glass cut into flamelike shapes that irregularly jut out of its brass fixture. Above the flames, an expansive Magen David, Star of David, is etched in black into the white-painted concrete ceiling, creating a powerful image of the symbols of the Jewish faith.
Exodus 27:20, the opening verse of this Shabbat’s sedrah, Tetzaveh, is the well-known biblical source for the Ner Tamid, the so-called eternal light, found in each and every synagogue.
I’m intrigued by the thought that the commandment of the Ner Tamid is suspended (literally and figuratively!) between the very exhaustive description of the mishkan, the desert tabernacle, found in last Shabbat’s portion, Terumah, and the detailed description of the elegant, ceremonial clothing worn by Aaron, the High Priest, and his sons — the tabernacle’s officiants — which immediately follows the opening verses in this Shabbat’s portion.
One can thus infer from the biblical narrative spanning chapters 25-28, that the Ner Tamid bridges the celestial world of holy space with the temporal world of consecrated individuals who, in turn, minister to the people. At the very intersection of the sacred and the profane; at today’s nexus of rabbinic-led ritual obligation and lay-congregational practice, it is the Ner Tamid – more than any other symbol reminiscent of the ancient tabernacle — that continues to symbolize the eternal presence of God in our midst.
Occasionally, I’ve had congregants walk through a pitch-black sanctuary — invariably a sight few, if any, have ever witnessed — lit only by the incandescent glow of the Ner Tamid: Judaism’s answer to a dependable, comforting, reassuring night light that illuminates the meeting place where heaven and earth reside; the abode where the spiritual and temporal dwell; the assembly where pulpit and pew embrace.
Such a nighttime scenario also elicits the subsequent question of the sages: “Mei’ei’matai …?” when could the ritual sacrifices resume in the morning? The Talmud in Berachot 9b offers a few illustrative suggestions but the most compelling explanation is more of a sociological one: “mi’she’yireh et chaveiro rachok arba amot, va’yakirenu.”
Dawn is defined as when one can see other people from a distance and recognize them as friends! That, essentially, is when the darkness begins to lift and when we can acknowledge the dignity, the humanity of the “other” in our midst. Such an interpretation also suggests that, for us, the once communal act of in-person worship (may such a scenario return bimheirah v’yameinu!) must necessarily be preceded by the basic, fundamental act of human interaction and mutual recognition. To greet one another in the flesh, panim el panim, face-to-face, is certainly the ideal, of course, even if that’s had to be severely if not completely curtailed this past year.
This Shabbat also happens to mark the annual celebration of Shushan Purim in both the Old City and the adjacent neighborhoods of Jerusalem. Maseichot, the ubiquitous wearing of masks, highlights for us — as it does each and every year — the stark and sobering realization that the real world of true spirituality, of authentic collaboration, of unpretentious partnership lies underneath the surface and the superficiality of mask wearing.
So, permit me to remove my own mask of shame and contend that we Americans are still suspended between the darkness of yesterday and the light of tomorrow. Will we still be entrapped by the sinister darkness of systemic racism and inequality; of white supremacy and ethnic bigotry; of cultural prejudice and gender bias; of wild conspiracy theories and blatant anti-Semitism?
Or, rather, will we — slowly but surely — move into the broad daylight of mutual tolerance, respect, acceptance and compromise?
The Talmud actually compares the long night of exile to the dawn of Purim. For when dawn breaks, all that was previously hidden will finally be revealed. Whatever appeared dark is now bathed in the gleaming light of day when we can, if we will it, stand quietly and confidently on the border of light.
Like our biblical ancestors of old, we too live in the warm shadow of the Ner Tamid, which offers comfort and consolation, healing and hope, respite and renewal. The oldest surviving symbol in all of Judaism reminds us that a new day has dawned. Let us attempt, with all our might, to be chaverim, friends one to the other, so that the better angels of our nature might yet vouchsafe for us all the blessings of a better and brighter tomorrow. l
Rabbi Robert Leib is the senior rabbi of Old York Road Temple-Beth Am in Abington. The Board of Rabbis is proud to provide diverse perspectives on Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent. The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not reflect the view of the Board of Rabbis.