I remember once someone commenting to me how no one noticed their new glasses. “On the contrary,” I told them, “The best compliment is when something fits so perfectly that you don’t even realize it’s new.”
This past week, someone approached me after davening and said, “Have I lost my mind? Those words above the Aron were they always there?!”
They fit perfectly. They look magnificent. And I find them incredibly inspiring. I’d like to spend the next few moments sharing with you the story behind the words, what these words mean, and why I find them to be so moving.
The story begins in the mid-16th century. There was at that time, a spiritual revival taking place in Northern Israel. Israel was under Ottoman rule, and this allowed the country to become a safe-haven for Jews running from the Inquisition. Within a short amount of time, and with some extra help from the philanthropist, Gracia Mendes, cities like Teverya and Tzfat began to flourish. In addition to the material success, the region developed as a center for mystics, most famously, Tzfat was the home of the AriZal, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, who revolutionized Kabbalistic thought.
One of the many great Kabbalists in the region was a man by the name Rabbi Elazar ben Moshe Azikri. He composed the words of Yedid Nefesh… an evocative song we sing to welcome Shabbos and send her off. He also wrote a book called, Sefer Chareidim. The premise of the book is that we, each and every one of us, is a temple. For most of us, when we think of holiness, we think of a shul, we think of the Kotel, perhaps we even think of what once stood behind the Kotel, the Temple, the Bais Hamikdash. But Rav Azikri asks us to imagine, or to recognize that the Temple is you.
For our story to continue, we’ll need to fast-forward to the late ‘50’s and early ‘60’s. At around the same time that our shul decided to change its name from Greenspring Valley Synagogue to Ner Tamid, a man was reading this book and was quite moved by its message. The man’s name was Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner He had studied at the University of Berlin and the top European Yeshivos. Ultimately, he moved to the US and influenced some of the most important teachers of Judaism in our day.
After Sefer Chareidim Rav Hutner penned the following:
Bilvavi mishkan evneh lahadar k’vodo – In my heart a sanctuary I shall build to the splendor of G-d’s honor.
Uv’mishkan mizbei’ach asim l’karnei hodo – and in the sanctuary an altar I shall place, to the rays of His glory.
The notion that our body is a sanctuary, is a temple, is about as 2022 as it gets. The notion that I am worthy of worship, that I am the center of attention, that I am the focal point dovetails quite nicely with our hyper-self-centeredness.
In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, his chart of human development, the highest rung is self-actualization, when I learn to utilize all my skills, talents, and experiences, to become the best version of me. That’s the purpose of life.
In Judaism, there is a rung above that one – it’s called self-negation. A healthy form of taking all those talents, skills, and experiences, and utilizing them for others. We are here, explain our great thinkers, to give. Not to make a name for ourselves and ensure that we have the best tombstone in the cemetery. No. We are here to make room for others. To quote Rabbi Jonathan Sacks: “The highest achievement is not self-expression but self-limitation: making space for something other and different from us. The happiest marriages are those in which each spouse makes space for the other to be his or her self. Great parents make space for their children. Great leaders make space for their followers. Great teachers make space for their pupils.”
Yes, we are a temple. We are important. Each and every one of us is critical for the world to function. But we are here to serve. To serve our family, to serve our friends, to serve our co-workers, to serve the stranger. And ultimately, we are here to serve G-d.
“In my heart, I build a sanctuary,” not to me, but “to the splendor of His honor.” “And in the sanctuary I place an altar, to the rays of His glory.” – not my glory.
The poem continues: Ul’ner tamid ekach li “And for an eternal light I take…” What is this eternal light? What does the Ner Tamid symbolize? It symbolizes us. It symbolizes that we are here in this room.
There is a war going on in Europe and we will continue to pray for peace and the wellbeing of all those in the region. Why is it being fought? Among other reasons, Russia is attempting to regain its past glory. Will it be successful? We obviously don’t know. But surprising things happen. We were shocked when the wall came down in 1989, will we be shocked again when it goes back up? There’s been a lot of talk about the demise of America, of the US losing its status as a superpower. Will this change in our lifetime?
Anyone with an eye to history has to be open to this possibility. Every great empire thought they would live forever. Until they didn’t.
And as we think about the shifting sands of power, we should pause and think about ourselves. To quote Mark Twain: “The Egyptian, the Babylonian, and the Persian rose, filled the planet with sound and splendor, then faded to dream-stuff and passed away; the Greek and the Roman followed, and made a vast noise, and they are gone; other peoples have sprung up and held their torch high for a time, but it burned out, and they sit in twilight now, or have vanished. The Jew saw them all, beat them all, and is now what he always was, exhibiting no decadence, no infirmities of age, no weakening of his parts, no slowing of his energies, no dulling of his alert and aggressive mind. All things are mortal but the Jew; all other forces pass, but he remains.”
That is the Ner Tamid. The eternal light. That has somehow outlasted all those seismic changes. We are a light, not only in the fact of survival. But a light in that it shined. We shined. We stubbornly held on to values that seemed backward. We held on to beliefs that seemed archaic. With time, those backward ideas were embraced. To quote the Christian historian, Paul Johnson: “The world without the Jews would have been a radically different place. Humanity might have eventually stumbled upon all the Jewish insights. But we cannot be sure. All the great conceptual discoveries of the human intellect seem obvious and inescapable once they had been revealed, but it requires a special genius to formulate them for the first time. The Jews had this gift. To them we owe the idea of equality before the law, both divine and human; of the sanctity of life and the dignity of human person; of the individual conscience and so a personal redemption; of collective conscience and so of social responsibility; of peace as an abstract ideal and love as the foundation of justice, and many other items which constitute the basic moral furniture of the human mind. Without Jews it might have been a much emptier place.”
That’s the Ner Tamid, the eternal, shining light.
And where do we take this light from?
Me’eish Ha’akeidah. We take it from the fire of the Akeidah.
The Akeidah, in Jewish literature is a symbol. The original Akeidah, the Binding of Isaac, was the first time we were asked to give up our life for our beliefs, but it certainly wasn’t the last. The destruction of the Temple was an Akeidah. The Crusades were an Akeidah. The Inquisition was an Akeidah. And of course, the Holocaust was a cataclysmic Akeidah.
But not only did these Akeidot, these moments of sacrifice not hold us down, they propelled us forward. Some of the most creative bursts of Jewish thought and practice were born out of the darkest of times. The development of the Mishna and the Talmud in the aftermath of Roman persecution, the explosion of mysticism that was rooted in Tzfat is a direct outgrowth of the Spanish Inquisition, and of course, in modern times, the establishment of the State of Israel and the unprecedented growth of Jewish knowledge that has taken place since the Holocaust.
Today we are reminded of two women who took the fire of their Akeidah, and built, and built magnificently. Sally and Bluma Saks, two sisters, born to a family of seven both endured the horrors of the Holocaust. By the time it was done, most of their family had perished, and they were left with scars that went deeper than we can ever imagine.
But both Bluma and Sally made a very conscious choice not only to survive, but to thrive. They chose to use their pain as a catalyst to give their children a life full of joy. To be a bridge between an old world and a new one. It would take hardship, it would take poverty, it would take overcoming language barriers, but none of that stopped them. Bluma, who many of us knew personally, could be seen whenever she was here with her tremendous smile. In the years prior, Bluma and her sister would be giving endlessly and selflessly to the shul, to the community, and to anyone and everyone who they saw. The fire of the Akeidah, the fire of their horrific past, burned bright in the most beautiful. It was the catalyst to ensure that the future would be sunny and bright for their descendants. And today, almost 20 descendants carry their legacy.
To conclude the song, the final stanza: “Ul’korban akriv lo es nafshi, and for an offering, I bring forth my soul, et nafshi hayechida, my unique soul.”
Rav Nachman of Breslov was quoted as saying: “The day you were born was the day that G-d decided that the Universe cannot exist without you.”
I would add, that every morning you wake up, G-d has decided that the Universe cannot exist without you.
Yes, we are here for others. But we, me, you, and you, and you, are each needed for a different purpose, have a different, have a different role to play in the tapestry of history. A role that only you can play. That is the naf’shi hayechida that we bring as an offering. Recognizing our place, our role, and our worth, and using it for a higher purpose.
The story of this song that started in Tzfat, and continued in the poetry of Rav Yitzchak Hutner, and was the lived experience of Bluma and Sally Saks, that story continues here, through us.
It is a story of dedication to others and to a higher cause – we are a temple for G-d, we dedicate our lives for the other. Bilvavi Mishkan evneh.
It is a story of surviving – we have been through it all and we will continue to be through all the changes that G-d and history have in store.
It is a story of thriving – we have all been through our own hardships. The Ner Tamid reminds us to shine, to learn and to grow and to never stop reaching higher, not despite the past, but growing through it.
It is a story of recognizing our unique worth, our singular soul: You are here on this earth because G-d decided that the world needs you. You are here in this shul today because G-d decided that you have a role to play. Figure it out. Use your unique powers.
And so, to the man who asked me if these words were always here, the answer is yes. We may not have seen them, but they have animated every part of this shul’s life. Jews who wanted to live in suburbia and be connected to Hashem and to their traditions built this shul. And Jews who want to climb ever higher in their own growth, who want to be there for the broader Jewish and non-Jewish community, who recognize their own worth, the beauty of their tradition, the challenges and opportunities of modernity, these Jews, these Jews, will continue to hold that Ner Tamid up high.