Light in the darkness
January 23, 2017
At the end of Shabbat, my son and I walked into the sanctuary of one of the synagogues in the bigger town south of here for a county-wide havdalah.
He immediately noticed the ner tamid -- the eternal light -- hanging on its chain in front of the ark where the Torah scrolls are kept.
(He compared it to something in an iPad game, because he is an ordinary seven-year-old boy, and animation is one of his frames of reference. This ner tamid is made of white glass shot through with lines of red, which made him think of digital fire. I couldn't find a picture of that particular ner tamid, so I'm illustrating this post with a different one. They come in many styles, and all are beautiful.)
"We have one of those at our synagogue too," I told him. "But ours is made of colored stained glass. Remember?"
"Oh yeah," he said. "I know what you're talking about."
"Every synagogue has one," I said. "It's supposed to always be on, all the time." And then I thought to ask him, "Why do you think that is?"
I don't know what I thought he would say. I was primed to give him a standard answer for why the ner tamid is there -- that it represents God's loving presence which is always with us. (To an adult, I might have also added that it represents the ancestral fire that Torah teaches was to be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.)
I should have known that he would have an answer of his own.
"To light our way through the darkness of our fears," he said confidently.
Now, maybe I primed him for that, the previous morning. We'd talked about people's hopes and fears upon the inauguration of a new President, and how he might hear something about those at the havdalah event on Saturday night.
But even if my mention of hopes and fears planted a seed for him, he made the leap from there to the ner tamid all on his own. He saw intuitively how our fears can feel like darkness, and how divine presence can be a beacon. It was obvious to him that the purpose of the ner tamid is to help us find our way when life feels dark.
"You just taught me something," I said to him. "Thank you."
"I did?" He seemed excited at the prospect. "Will you write it down?"
My child knows me well. "I will," I promised him.
And now I have.