by Robert Lichtman, Federation Chief Jewish Learning Officer
A steady flame burned upon the large sacrificial altar within the Jerusalem Temple. That flame lent itself to every one of the thousands of sacrifices offered on that altar. Some sacrifices were modest, designed to express contrition or thanks. Others were magnificent spectacles designed to inspire amazement and awe. But every offering was ignited by that same flame, there on the corner of the altar. The eternal flame, the Ner Tamid.
The Ner Tamid was not intrinsically eternal. It was eternal because people kept the flame alive. God’s instructions went like this: “A perpetual fire shall burn on the altar; it will never be extinguished.”
In a Torah that measures every word, why do we need the phrase “it will never be extinguished?” If the flame is perpetual, it will not be extinguished.
We need the admonition that “it will never be extinguished” because, without it, there is no guarantee that the flame will not go out. The second part of the sentence is where God kind of looks over the rim of her glasses and says, “You know how I know that the flame will not be extinguished? Because I’m telling you it’s your job to feed that flame. And I am confident that you will feed that flame because you know as well as I do that you need it now, you will need it tomorrow. You will always need it.”
Where others may see an altar, I ask you to envision our Jewish community.
Where others may see a flame, I ask you to envision the UJA Annual UJA– that is our Ner Tamid. That is the flame that dances day and night in our community, the perpetual flame that must never be extinguished. That is the flame that lends itself to everything and makes possible all we can imagine and achieve. Every wish desired, every hope aspired, has and will come to life because of that flame, there — on the corner of the altar — our UJA Campaign.
While we honor donors who direct their generosity to wonderful programs that appropriately bear their names, this simple sentence, “A perpetual fire shall burn on the altar; it will never be extinguished,” reminds us that the one thing that ignites all of those sensational offerings that sizzle and explode with goodness throughout our community, the most precious gift that does the most good for the most people, the one that anticipates needs yet unknown, the one that is unbound to illuminate areas of our community that are yet to be explored or even to be identified, is the simple, unrestricted gift to the UJA Annual Campaign; that is the flame that keeps on burning.
If all this flame did was to burn on its own, that alone would be remarkable. But the unrestricted UJA Campaign enables us to swaddle people with care, to support them as they rise up, and to launch them into their future. It provides light and warmth to individuals, families, the Jewish community, and our neighbors in the world. And like the flame on the altar, this flame will never go out because people like you tend to it with your generosity. Your unrestricted gift is how you express your unconditional love for the Jewish People.
There is a light that is found in every synagogue. Though we Jews may swim in different streams, we flow in the same direction. That Ner Tamid is affixed above every Ark that houses Torah scrolls. It recalls how that flame that burned on the alter thousands of years ago still burns.
Recently, some of my Federation colleagues retrieved tattered and moldy sacred Jewish books from the United Orthodox Synagogue building in Plainfield, which sadly lay abandoned, awaiting the bulldozer.
A Ner Tamid was also there, buried in the rubble, in the murky debris described as “a junkyard hit by a bomb.” The synagogue members were gone. The Torah scrolls were gone. But the Ner Tamid was there, broken and unburning. Two of my colleagues lovingly restored that Ner Tamid and it has assumed a new, equally sacred role. It is now permanently installed and ablaze at our Aidekman Family Jewish Community Campus in Whippany, symbolizing our unrestricted UJA Annual Campaign, the flame that provides light and heat, and enables everything we do and dream.
Take a close look at this light the next time you come to our Whippany campus. This Ner Tamid will never go out. Not because it can’t go out, but because you will not let it go out. And for that, generations of people whom you cannot yet even imagine say “Thank You.”
is the Federation’s Chief Jewish Learning Officer
July 18, 2018