Rabbi Neil Schuman

The Eternal Flame
In almost every synagogue there’s a light emanating from above the Ark. The designs of this “Ner Tamid” will vary, but what won’t vary is the fact that it will be the only light on in a sanctuary all of the time.
Why do we have this lamp, and why is it so ubiquitous?
I believe the source is from last week’s Torah reading, Parshat Tzav, when we were commanded to have an eternal fire in the ancient Temple:
5 A fire shall burn on the Altar; it shall not go out. The kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning, and upon it, he shall arrange the burnt offerings and the fats of the peace offerings.
וְהָאֵ֨שׁ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ תּֽוּקַד־בּוֹ֙ לֹ֣א תִכְבֶּ֔ה וּבִעֵ֨ר עָלֶ֧יהָ הַכֹּהֵ֛ן עֵצִ֖ים בַּבֹּ֣קֶר בַּבֹּ֑קֶר וְעָרַ֤ךְ עָלֶ֨יהָ֙ הָֽעֹלָ֔ה וְהִקְטִ֥יר עָלֶ֖יהָ חֶלְבֵ֥י הַשְּׁלָמִֽים:
6 A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out.
ואֵ֗שׁ תָּמִ֛יד תּוּקַ֥ד עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ לֹ֥א תִכְבֶּֽה:
From this Eternal fire that was kept on the Altar, the sacrifices were consumed, the fragrant incense was burned and the menorah was lit. Many mitzvot were kindled from this one fire.
Nowadays, this flame burns in our synagogues, but more importantly in our hearts. The following is a story that Rabbi Shlomo Carlebach used to tell about this fire in the context of the last Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto.
“It was 1943, the second night of Passover, the last Seder in the Warsaw Ghetto. There was just one bunker left, there was just one Jewish family left, and only one Jewish child.
Moishele, the son, asks the Four Questions but he’s really asking, “Why do we go through so much pain, more than anybody in the world?”
It’s the deepest question and Heaven is silent. The last Jewish child in the Warsaw Ghetto is asking the question that has been with us for ages. His father starts to answer with the response of the Haggadah, “Avadim Hayinu, we were slaves to Pharoah…” but then the child interrupts again.
“Tateh (father), I have one more question of my own. Will you be alive at next year’s Seder to answer me? Will I be alive next year to ask the Mah Nishtaneh? Will any Jew be alive anywhere in the world to ask the Mah Nishtaneh?”
When he asked his first four questions, Heaven was silent and in awe of his bravery. When he asked his own question, Heavenly tears started to flow.
God cried and the Patriarchs and Matriarchs covered their faces in tears, but Moishele’s father, a holy Jew, answered him as follows,
“Ki v’sheim kodshecha nishbata lo, By Your Holy name, You swore to him (King David) shelo yichbeh neiro l’olam va’ed, that his lamp would never go out.
Moishele, I don’t know if you will be alive. I don’t know if I will be alive. But I know there will be one Moishele alive somewhere. There will still be a Moishele to ask the Mah Nishtaneh, because God promised that the Jewish people’s lamp, our fire, our spirit, will never be extinguished.”[1]
It seems as though Moishele’s survival question is once again relevant. However, from the power of the eternal flame that resides inside our hearts we will find the strength to ask the Mah Nishataneh on Wednesday and Thursday and again in the years to come.
Many of you remember when the reggae singer, Matisyahu, went through his Chabad/Lubavitch phase. At that time, he was composing incredibly moving religiously themed music. One song, based on our Parsha is titled “Aish Tamid” (The Eternal Flame). The song concludes with the ultimate destiny of our eternal fire:
Aish tamid eternally
A fire burns continuously
Wondering where you been
Won’t you come on home to me?
A rollercoaster sizzling, twisting down the mountain
ripping rocket ship exploding like a fountain
overflowing spilling through the courtyards of Jerusalem
Uncovering debris lifting up the fallen arisen within
to reach the yiddin even in Manhattan
exposed menorah glowing in the shadows of destruction
trailblazing through affliction
brushing off the branches golden
standing strong flames
dancing like a lion roaring rising out of nothing
That eternal flame will eventually strengthen us, inspire us to unite the world in peace. However, until that time comes, we’ll continue to use it for kindling our mitzvot. On Wednesday morning we’ll utilize it to burn the chometz, a metaphor for what’s unproductive in our lives. Then we’ll use it to light the Yom Tov and Shabbat candles to usher in the spirit of Freedom and serenity into our homes.
These are difficult times. We all know someone suffering from Coronavirus. We feel their pain. We also feel the pain of isolation and unemployment. To conduct a Seder this year, we need to draw from our inner flame. Inside of us burns the eternal flame that tells us to have faith, we will survive and once again thrive.
Happy Passover.
[1] Urim Publications, 2001, The Carlebach Haggadah