This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh (Ex. 27:20 – 30:10) begins with the description of the ner tamid, the perpetual, or regular, light that burned in the Mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness. In the Torah’s instruction, the light is to burn “from evening to morning” (Ex. 27:21). In modern day synagogues, the ner tamid is an eternal light and it is kept burning all the time.
In his reflection on this passage in the Etz Chaim Torah Commentary, Rabbi Harold Kushner muses upon the frequent use of fire as a symbol for God. He writes, “…fire is not an object. It is the process of liberating the energy hidden in a log or wood or a lump of coal, even as God becomes real in our lives in the process of liberating the potential energy in each of us to be good, generous and self-controlled”. Kushner does not dwell upon what fire does when it is out of control. When controlled, fire can provide light and warmth. When fire exceeds the boundaries of safety, it destroys and it kills.
We watch the nightly news with horror as the self-proclaimed Islamic State in Syria beheads foreign journalists, abducts Syrian Christians from their homes and kills them, and destroys irreplaceable ancient Mesopotamian statues. These murderers claim to represent Islam in its purest form. Rather, they are what happens when we allow the holy fire that God placed within us to burn unchecked.