For centuries, the light hanging above the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept has been called a ner tamid, an everlasting light. It is a part of the architecture and religious symbolism of every Jewish sanctuary. Sometimes it is an electric light, other times it may be a flame fueled by oil. Often it is artfully crafted out of precious metal or glass.
Many commentators believe that the origin of the ner tamid is found in the opening lines of this week’s Torah portion. In Tetzaveh we read: You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for lamps burning continually… But there is disagreement as to what exactly the ner tamid mentioned in our text is. It might be the lamp that stood in front of the ark curtain that was kept continually burning. Or it might be the seven-branch menorah that was a main fixture within the ancient Temple.
Some commentators see the ner tamid not as an actual light, but as a powerful symbol representing the Jewish people. Just as the ner tamid burns eternally, so too the Jewish people will survive, enduring forever, despite their persecutors. Like the flame that is kindled and rekindled, the light of Israel burns steadily.
Others believe that the ner tamid is not a symbol of the people Israel, but rather a reminder of God’s presence in our midst. Writes Rabbi Chaim Stern, “Light is a metaphor for the Divine, for understanding, for ‘enlightenment….’” The brightness reminds us that we are responsible for bringing God’s light into the world, that we are as the prophet Isaiah said, to be “a light to all the nations.”
How do we serve as ‘a light to the nations?’ By doing mitzvot, by doing what is right and good, we bring light into our world through our actions. In this way, we ‘brighten’ our lives and those of the people around us.