There is a wonderful story in the Talmud about Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah. After the rabbis depose Rabban Shimon ben Gamliel of his leadership role, Rabbi Elazar ben Azaria is selected to lead the Jewish people. Before accepting the position, he says, “I need to check with my wife.” That night as they discuss his future, his wife asks him, “Perhaps they’ll get rid of you too?” In response, he holds up a fancy goblet and says, “Better to use an expensive goblet once lest it breaks tomorrow” (Berachot 28a).
Life is precious. Life is a fancy goblet that is not meant to be stored away in our cabinets or showcased on our mantles. It is meant to be used; even if that means the end result will be a broken or even a shattered vessel.
As a kid when I heard this story, it taught me that everything is temporary. No-thing lasts forever. I remember thinking: I better take advantage of what I have because eventually, everything comes to an end.
This past year has taught us all that. It was exactly one year ago today, the day after Purim, that our world flipped on its head. A day that saw an epidemic turn into a pandemic that has resulted in over 500,000 lives lost to Covid and countless others to despair. We truly don’t even know the depths of loss the world has experienced.
While no one across the globe has been immune to the pandemic, our community has faced and dealt with loss on a greater ratio. And my heart is heavy by the recent deaths in our beloved community, particularly our “gatekeeper,” Ryan Kopald.
And one of the questions I’m sitting with is: Does anything last forever?
This week’s Torah portion, Tetzaveh, teaches about the Ner Tamid, the eternal flame that was constantly kindled on the Menorah and kept burning in the Temple.
“You shall further instruct the Israelites to bring you clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps always” (Exodus 27:20).
The Torah is telling us to kindle this flame forever. A perpetual action of keeping a flame burning that symbolically represents the eternal covenant we share with God. In a world where all things are temporary and transient, our covenant with our Higher Power is meant to be “Tamid” or ever-lasting.
What is interesting to me is the Hebrew word for eternal comes from the root (מוד) mod which means “to prolong, to extend, to stretch.” Like a perpetual flame, in order to make something Tamid, we must prolong the experience and stretch it out. Make it last longer than it may have actually lasted without our involvement.
While learning with the residents this week, one person shared that constantly kindling the flame is too anxiety-provoking and that it’s a lot easier to just let the candle blow out. And he’s absolutely right: it would be like keeping that fancy goblet hidden and tucked away because of fear of its demise. However, being in covenant with something greater than ourselves is what helps to turn something that is fleeting into something that is potentially everlasting.
It is no surprise that this commandment comes shortly after the Israelites’ experience of revelation at Sinai. What this ritual seeks to convey is that we continue to keep that experience alive in the forefront of our minds and in our daily actions.
As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel writes:
The immediate certainty that we attain in moments of insight does not retain its intensity after the moments are gone. Moreover, such experiences or inspirations are rare events. To some people they are like shooting stars, passing and unremembered. In others they kindle a light that is never quenched. The remembrance of that experience and the loyalty to the response of that moment are the forces that sustain our faith. In this sense, faith is faithfulness, loyalty to an event, loyalty to our response. (God in Search of Man, p. 132).
Because the truth about spiritual awakenings and moments of insight – or even revelation – is that they, too, are transient. Just like the goblet that will eventually shatter, our “aha” moments come and go like shooting stars. They are amazing in the moment and wonderful to witness and experience but they do not endure unless we stay loyal to those moments and continue to do the work of recovery. The boring work that has no glory but makes all the difference of whether we’re living in integrity or hiding.
So what endures? What stands the test of time?
As a person of faith, I believe that acts of loving-kindness last forever. That our mitzvot, our sacred obligations, which we complete, endure long after our bodies decay. That is our legacy that outlives us.
And while there are flames whose candles may no longer be burning, part of our task is to remember and to rekindle the flames of their legacy, tamid, constantly. That when the goblets break, T’Shuvah is the adhesive that helps mend the broken pieces into wholeness again and relights the fire of a new flame.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Purim Sameach!