Not Constantly But Consistently

Feb 14, 2022
by admin / LNCLN

Dvar Torah, Parashat Tetzaveh

“Not Constantly But Consistently”


This week’s parsha opens with instructions for illuminating the mishkan:


You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, to cause the lamp to burn always. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, from evening to morning before Gd. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages. (Exodus 27:20-21)


The phrase, which I’ve translated here as “the lamp to burn always[1]”, is difficult. Textually difficult because, while the word “tamid” does usually mean something like “always”, this translation seems to directly contradict the next verse, which says that the lamp burns “from evening to morning.” And worse, practically difficult: if always means the lamp is to burn 24/7 how does this physically work? Lamps need to be cleaned out of ash, refueled, relit. Also, what is the purpose of lights during the daylight hours?


The midrashim and classical commentaries on this verse go predictably crazy. What does it mean that the lamp is “tamid”?! Many, despite all the textual and practical evidence to the contrary, fight to read the lamp as burning literally all the time. My teacher, Rabbi Shai Held, building on the Talmud in Shabbat (22b),  beautifully explains one possible motivation, beyond the presence of the word “tamid”, for these ungainly stretches: “If the light is intended to symbolize God’s presence, then it stands to reason that the light must be kept constantly aflame. Just as God is always present, so must the light be always shining.[2]” It is this impulse, for example, which has given us “ner tamid” as a constantly glowing light fixture in modern synagogues.  And so, the commentaries create various complicated solutions involving one lamp or one part of the lamp staying lit while the others are cleaned, or multiple lamps, some of which are night only and some of which are 24-7[3].


Rashi, however, solves the problem much more simply. He points out that we also have a sacrifice called “tamid” which is not, obviously, always being offered at every moment twenty four hours a day - rather it is offered first thing in the morning and last thing at night. Rashi tells us that “Doing something every night, as is described here, may be termed tamid” In other words, the word “tamid” should not be translated as constantly but as consistently. The word tamid is here not to tell us that the lamps burn all the time, but that the priests consistently return to maintain and relight them, night after night after night.


I want to suggest that in providing this translation, Rashi not only solves our reading problem, but actually offers a better metaphor for the spiritual life than the one of the eternal flame. If the menorah is not representative of Gd’s presence, but of our presence with Gd, then the constantly-burning flame is a recipe for disaster - for, literally, burn out. The model, instead, of the lamps to which we consistently return to clean out ash, and refuel, and relight offer us a much better paradigm for our relationship with the Divine.


We humans never do anything all the time. Even breath and heartbeat, which we experience as constant, are actually consistent, intermittent but regular. For humans, doing something regularly is as close as we can get to eternality, a mode reserved for the Divine. The regularly rekindled lights offer us a story that says to be holy is not to be exactly like Gd, but rather to be as human as we can possibly be. It offers a way of thinking about the spiritual path that is kinder to us, in our predictable unpredictability. We are not asked, nor expected, to keep the lamps burning all the time. We are human. There will be setbacks. We need breaks. And yet, we commit to returning to relight the lamps.


More than that, we are defined and shaped over time by that which we do regularly. If every morning our first act is to roll over and check our phones, or go for a run, or meditate, or study, or hug a loved one, every single day, those behaviors will shape not only the actual time spent on them but, in the aggregate, who we are as people. To paraphrase Rashi, doing something every night is functionally like doing it always.


The Siftei Chachamim, a super commentary on Rashi, adds a layer. He suggests that the lamp is called Tamid in reference to the end of the next verse, which tells us that the lights should be lit  “throughout the ages”  in other words, the light is eternal not in shining all the time, but in the Jewish people’s commitment to continue to light it when it goes out, forever.


The spiritual life is not about constant connection with holiness, just as an ethical life is not about perfection. In both cases, the work is about consistent commitment to return, to dig out the ash that has built up in our lamps, to refuel, to relight. To choose, over and over again, the behaviors that shape ourselves and our world in the direction of light and goodness.


[1] Per Koren. JPS, probably more accurately: for kindling lamps regularly.

[2] Center for Jewish Leadership and Ideas, Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20-30:10) – Adar 5775

[3] See for example, Ramban here, basing himself on the Sifre.