First off, I want to thank you all for arranging for a heat wave on the weekend of February 19! Seriously, I saw that it was something like 6 degrees at one point last week, and I wasn’t sure what to make of that number! So thank you for the figurative and literal warm welcome. Not that I should talk weather, however. I’m coming to you from Seattle, where they sell T-shirts at Pike Place Market that say, “Seattle: Rainy season--January 1 to December 31.”
And while that’s not *totally* true, Seattle does leave you with a distinct sense of being damp for six months straight. No amount of fleece or Gore-Tex can really keep it out all season long. Believe me, I’ve tried.
For those of you who went to summer camp as kids and remember singing songs and eating ‘smores around the campfire; or for those of you who like to backpack, and build fires at the end of the day where you cook dinner and have quiet conversation; or for those of you who like to ski—or in my case, watch other people ski—and find the fire pit at the lodge to be the best place to relax, read, and hang out, you know what I mean when I say that fire is powerful. Beyond its ability to literally sustain us, human beings are drawn to fire because it creates warm, comforting spaces where everyone feels welcome and community can form.
It was thus striking to me--that this week’s parashah, Tetzaveh, opens with an image of fire and the communal responsibility to fuel it. The first line of the parasha (Ex 27, verse 20) reads:
V’atah tetzaveh et bnei yisrael - You (in this case, God speaking to Moses) shall instruct the children of Israel
V’yikhu elecha shemen zayit, zach katit l’maor - to bring for yourselves oil of beaten olives—that is, fuel—for the light,
L’haalot ner tamid - for lighting the Ner Tamid, a lamp to burn continually.
Writing in the 13th century, RambaN, also known as Nachmanides, describes how this Ner Tamid was a perpetually lit lamp from which light was taken at dusk each day by the priests to kindle the menorah located in the Tabernacle. It was, in essence, a larger fire from which sparks were taken to light smaller fires.
Writing about 100 years later, Abarabanel, one of my favorite commentators, a Sephardic rabbi who was as attentive to detail as he was curious, asks: But why does the Torah “give instructions for kindling the lamps (in v.20) before the Tabernacle has even been constructed and the lampstand made?” In other words, why does God command the people to bring fuel before there’s even a place to put it?
In my mind, this reversed order of events reminds us that while it might be the priests—the “Jewish professionals,” so to speak—who are responsible for the caretaking and general maintenance of the containers in which the fuel is ultimately held, it is not their job to find the fuel. Rather, it is the responsibility of the people, of bnei Yisrael, to bring the fuel. There can be no light without the people’s effort, there is no eternally burning flame, no Ner Tamid, without communal commitment.
In synagogues around the world—from Minnesota to Seattle to Paris to Brazil—the Ner Tamid is a central aspect of synagogue architecture. While each Ner Tamid may look different, they are all designed to perpetually burn, perhaps reminding us of the Tabernacle and the original role of fire there. But for many of us, the Ner Tamid may have additional symbolic resonance. At various times in my own life, I have considered the Ner Tamid to be some sort of symbolic manifestation of God’s continual presence in my life. So I was surprised—and yet also inspired—to find that Hizkuni, writing in the 13th century, asserted quite straightforwardly that “God does not need a light.” God does not need a light to point to God, nor does God need a light to please God. Rather, Hizkuni wrote, the light is “for you, to be able to see where you are coming and going.” In other words, the Ner Tamid illuminates our past and guides our future—as individuals and as a community. That light reminds each and every person who enters here that this is mikdash me’at—a miniature Temple—where you are welcome, where you are needed, where you are noticed, where you are nurtured.
As in ancient days, supporting the flame of the Ner Tamid remains a communal obligation. Though we may no longer schlep jugs of olive oil to our synagogues, as a community, we still fuel the Ner Tamid in practical ways. We—the congregants and supporters of this community—keep the Ner Tamid burning through our shekels—through our dues, our donations, our financial contributions.
But there is another critical way in which we keep that Ner Tamid burning that has nothing to do with our checkbooks. We keep that flame perpetually burning through the way we interact with other people whom we encounter in and through this mikdash me’at, this holy place.
For we all have experienced that just as warming as a physical fire can be the warm interactions we have with other people, in moments expected and unexpected. When someone reaches out to you, asks your name, pays attention to you, is present for you—we experience warmth inside. In that moment of connection, we remember that we are part of something bigger than ourselves, and, in turn, we often feel compelled to pass a small spark of that feeling along to someone else.
In my mind, that is the critical mission of Jewish communities today; that is the perpetual fire that we must keep lit. Just as in Tetzaveh we are given instructions to keep the light of the ner Tamid burning by bringing olive oil, Judaism’s myriad mitzvot bein adam l’havero –interpersonal mitzvot--and opportunities to do gmilut hesed—acts of lovingkindess, serve as a blueprint for how to warm the hearts and souls of others in our community through acts of noticing, caretaking and connection. In this way, we create community that will perpetually endure.
Take, for example, hachnasat orchim, welcoming the guest. We often teach broadly that this means hosting people for meals or for homestays. For some of us, that’s possible. For many of us, this sort of hosting may not be realistic. And that is okay. But there are simpler, smaller ways of welcoming others, ways that are similarly quite meaningful and important, and that can spark a fire in someone: saying hello to an unfamiliar face at Kiddush, or reintroducing yourself to someone whose name you have forgotten. I’ve never had someone whose name I forgot refuse to share their name with me a second time; if anything, the re-introduction helped them remember my name too and gave us another reason to talk!
Hachnasat Orchim in small ways can also look like introducing a person you just met to another person you already know in the community. This suggestion may sound really simple, but I have been to a lot of kiddushes and Hebrew School potlucks and holiday gatherings and watched a lot of people interact, and a lot of us don’t do it. Perhaps we are embarrassed about putting ourselves out there. Perhaps we feel like it’s the Jewish professional’s job, or it’s better suited for someone who has been in the community longer than we have or comes more regularly than we do.
But recall that Tetzaveh does not say “Only the Shabbat regulars can bring oil for the fire.” It says, quite explicitly, that “bnei yisrael” is to bring the fuel, no matter how or how often we participate in the community. We are bnei Yisrael. We are this community. We are as commanded to bring the fuel as much as anyone else. The more we do it, the easier it gets, and the more likely our small sparks of connection will spark other’s fires in turn.
Let me share an example from my personal life that demonstrates what I mean.
When we moved to Seattle, I was just pregnant with my third child. We went to the synagogue to see if it was the mikdash me’at, the holy community, that we craved and that we wished to be a part of. About three weeks after I gave birth, I found myself suddenly alone, juggling a newborn and two other kids. It wasn’t easy but I realized that I needed a little help. A woman I had met at synagogue who I known for all of six months at the time saw me in the market, must have seen the sheer look of panic on my face, and asked if she could organize a meal train for me. I said yes, and the community mobilized. For three weeks, I had people come to my home, many of whom were basically strangers to me. They provided us meals, snuck in dessert for the older kids even though I had asked them not to J, and reminded me that this, too, shall pass. To be totally truthful, in that blur of newborniness, I don’t even remember all of the people who fueled us with their meals and their kindness, though one I do remember was a woman I will call Sarah. She is a long-time Seattleite, now a divorced empty nester and a grandmother. She made us quinoa chili and a homemade challah that was out of this world, and took my newborn for 20 minutes so I could shower. Her kindness stuck on me. We kibbutzed in synagogue if we saw each other, and we had Shabbat dinner together once following, but we certainly were not best friends.
And then about two years later, Sarah fell and broke her kneecap. She had to have emergency surgery and was bedridden for two weeks. She reached out to a synagogue committee called the Mitzvah Corps, which is coordinated wholly by laypeople, and asked for help; even though she has kids and grandkids living in Seattle, they weren’t able to help her for two weeks straight. She asked if people would be able to bring by food, and she also needed help changing her bandages and getting dressed. I called her and asked if she would be comfortable with me doing the latter. So there I found myself, two years after she was in my living room holding my newborn, helping to give her a sponge bath and change her bandages. She has since healed completely, and is back in the community full-force.
We are still not best friends, we do not hang out all the time, but we are connected by a powerful bond, of being there for each other in a moment of vulnerability.
My experience with Sarah to me represents what is possible in the container of the Jewish community. We have our synagogue, this mikdash me’at, a communal project that we are all equally required to fuel. We already do much, and we can always do more. When we pay attention to one another and show up for each other, we light small sparks of connection, and who knows where they might lead….
In Seattle, there is an urban myth of the “Seattle freeze.” In Minnesota, I have heard it the phenomenon explained as “Minnesota nice,” which I have seen written with a playful emphasis on the word “Ice.” Funny how these terms both refer to coldness—the opposite of the Ner Tamid, the perpetually burning flame that we are commanded to fuel in our community.
As members of this mikdash me’at, we know that we are obligated to conquer the cold by bringing the fire.
Bnei yisrael, we each have our own fuel to bring. What is yours?
Let us commit, as individuals and as a community, to find the strength and the courage to step outside of our comfort zones and be even more present for others, in expected and unexpected ways. In so doing, we may spark someone else’s flame and keep the Ner Tamid perpetually aglow so that all who enter here may better see where they are coming and where they are going, bathed in the warm embrace of holy community.