Rabbi Anna Gerrard, 7 April 2017
“A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out.” (Leviticus 6:6)
This instruction to maintain a flame in the Holy Tabernacle and eventually in the Temple itself became defunct when the Temple was destroyed in 70CE. Faced with the task of rebuilding a Jewish practice that made sense without a Temple, the first century Rabbis looked for ways to replicate such traditions in the Synagogue setting. Thus our Synagogues have an Eternal Light, a Ner Tamid, to this day.
The Ner Tamid represents more than just a desire to emulate a Temple practice. It has come to stand for the Jewish people’s incredible journey of survival, for keeping the flame of Judaism alive and for the permanence of our sacred spaces. It is a powerful metaphor and an evocative focal point for our prayer services.
Yet half of our Liberal Judaism communities are nomadic, renting space to hold their meetings and setting up a sanctuary for just a few hours each month. Some have a symbolic lamp, which they switch on for the duration of their services. Others have no Ner Tamid at all. Half of our communities face a flameless ark or know that the so-called Eternal Light will actually be switched off in a few hours. Half of our communities have no tangible reminder of Jewish survival, continuity and permanence.
This absence could leave such communities feeling less inspired, less hopeful or just less connected to the chain of Jewish tradition. Yet such communities are some of our strongest survivors, based as they often are in far-flung and sparsely (Jewishly-speaking) populated areas. One could argue that their very existence is a form of Ner Tamid. Seeking out the handful of Jews in each nearby village or town; bringing members together in Church halls, community centres and living rooms; schlepping Torah scrolls, portable arks, prayer books and Kiddush cups from one temporary home to another.
Each and every one of our small communities is a miraculous Eternal Light in the sanctuary that is its catchment area. When a few hardy souls strive to build a Liberal Judaism community outside of the main Jewish centres, they kindle a flame that cannot be seen but can certainly be felt and cherished.
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