A Jew walks into a synagogue and looks around. What can s/he expect to see? An area for prayer that includes an ark that contains at least one Torah; perhaps a table, a bima, in front of the ark as a focus area for the prayer service and the Torah reading; and finally, a light, either attached to the top of the ark in some way or hanging from the ceiling.
The first two items are self-explanatory. We keep our holy Torahs in a tabernacle, an ark, just as was done in biblical times. The bima, a raised platform with a reading desk, provides a place on which to rest the Torah and from which to conduct the service. Lastly we come to the hanging light, called the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Flame. What is its purpose? It clearly does not give off enough light to be useful in any practical way, for example, it is not strong enough to read by.
The rationale for the Ner Tamid is found in this week’s parsha, Tzav (Lev 6:6). “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” It is mentioned 3 times in this parsha that the fire is not to go out, a repetition that emphasizes the perpetual nature of this particular flame. Imagine the work that it took in biblical times to keep a fire burning 24 hours a day – making an altar, gathering wood, cleaning the ashes, the manpower to tend to it. It took effort to maintain this – a communal effort. This flame transitions into our ner tamid, eternal flame, that is a physical manifestation of what we should already know: that God’s presence is always among and within us, and we just have to be able to “see” it.
We no longer have a Temple with its menorah and altars and ritual sacrifices. What we do have is community and prayer and places of worship that contain this eternal flame. And for those of us who do not belong to a synagogue or who belong to one that does not have the physical infrastructure to house an eternal flame? We find in Ezekiel (11:16), “I have become to them as a little sanctuary.” These little sanctuaries, according to one reading of this verse, are physical structures such as the synagogues that were built in exile to represent the lost Temple.
I choose to focus on a different meaning for the notion of a “little sanctuary”: not a physical structure but a spiritual state. We as individuals become the little sanctuaries that carry God’s presence around. There is godliness within all of us, a fact that many of forget on a regular basis. Being human, we need reminders of things—both spiritual and physical reminders. We circle back to the ner tamid, the eternal flame. Just as our ancestors were able to see the flames and smoke coming from the Temple at all hours, so too can we see the eternal flame when we walk into a synagogue, no matter the day or time. Even today it takes a community willing to raise money and tend to its infrastructure in order to keep that flame burning. Outside the synagogue it takes other types of communities, like minyanim and kehilot, to provide nurturing environments to tend to the flame, the spirituality, the little sanctuaries that burn within each of us.
Once our lives revolved around the Temple. Today our spirituality, our souls, live and die together based on the communities that we form and on the caring that we give to one another.