You shall command the children of Israel, that they bring pure oil…to cause a lamp to burn continually….from evening to morning before Adonai , it shall be a law forever for all the generations of the children of Israel. (Exodus 27.20-21)
This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, from the Book of Exodus, speaks to us about the ner tamid, The Eternal Light. For centuries, the Eternal Light has been a fixture in every synagogue building throughout the world, a standing reminder that God is everywhere and present at every time.
It is comforting to think that somethings are forever, yet eternity presents us with a puzzle. We can’t experience it, smell it, taste it, see it, touch it, hear it, and yet we know it exists. Mathematics recognizes the existence of infinity. Eternity expresses in time what infinity expresses in numbers. We can only count so high because we only live so long. Yet, the laws of physics and mathematics existed even before humanity understood them and will continue to exist with or without us.
Even in “the information age”, eternity remains a complete mystery to us. It is a baffling concept to wrap our heads around. Woody Allen once said “I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work; I want to achieve immortality through not dying.” Rather than arguing what we can prove, eternity has a humbling way of leaving us mortals limited to imagining that which we can never know. We human beings can never know eternity, but we can experience continuity: the sense that we are participating in something of far more important and with far more longevity than ourselves. Contributing to the continuity of ideas, values, and principles is as close to eternity as we can ever hope to come.
Occupying a moment in this continuum, we do not get to begin or end the race, nor do we get to see the entire course ourselves. We are blessed, however, to carry and eventually pass the baton from one point to another, to run our leg of the race as best we can. We don’t know what eternity is, but we contribute to it nevertheless, glimpsing eternity in sacred moments. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that Judaism offers us the time of Shabbat, wherein “Eternity utters a day”, a means to connect with and experience the holiness of time. On Shabbat the material and quantifiable are transcended through the act of being. The Ner Tamid, in a way both similar to and different from Shabbat, offers us a visual symbol that focuses our attention and reminds us that it is time itself, whatever we make of it, that connects us to both the finite and the infinite, mortal and immortal, the temporary and The Eternal.