As I was setting up the chapel for this evening’s Tish’a B’Av service and Eichah reading at Temple Emanu-El in Providence, dimming the lights, lighting the five shiva candles that sit on the Amud (Reader’s Table) during the service, it occurred to me that the symbolism of the Ner Tamid shining in the shadows is starker than ever on Tish’a B’Av.
The Ner Tamid, the “Eternal Light”, a symbolic light that is hung above the ark in synagogue sanctuaries around the world, is said to remind us both of the Menorah, the oil lamp, and the continuously burning fire on the altar in the Temple in Jerusalem.
It occurred to me also that while we light the Shiva candles in memoriam for the Beit HaMikdash that was destroyed for the first time in 586 BCE and then the second in 70 CE, my kindling feels a bit like a victory. A reclaiming of the fire, if you will. While I know it is a custom to light these candles, and that they are, in most places, for ambiance more than anything else, it felt like I was remembering the fire that burned our Temple, that burned our People, throughout the ages. It felt like I was connected to that raging fire, and had tamed it.
As I look at these small flames, contained in glass, against the great Ner Tamid that glows a strong blue in the chapel at Temple Emanu-El, I remember how our Temple was destroyed. Our People consumed in raging flames not once, but many times throughout the last three thousand years. I remember how not only was our greatest structure consumed those two fateful days in Jewish history; I remember how many must have died that day in terror. How many families must have been torn apart. I remember the Ten Martyrs who we recall on Yom Kippur, including the great sage Rabbi Akiva. I remember the Spanish Inquisition, when Jews were burned at the stake. I remember the 1903 Kishinev pogrom. The flaming bricks thrown through windows. I remember the over six million Jews and over five million other who perished in our own century. I remember the news reports of the suicide bombings in Israel during the first and second Intifada.
Tish’a B’Av is a day to reclaim our national fire. It is a day of mourning for all those who were senselessly and brutally murdered from within our own People. As we inhale, we sense just a bit of smoke entering our olfactory consciousness. We remember those who ascended tragically in flames. On Tish’a B’Av, we remember them.
And as our Ner Tamid sits proudly above the ark, where we keep the most sacred objects in our tradition, we remember that we live in a world where senseless hatred had not been eliminated. It has not left us. And as the sun sets now on Tish’a B’Av, we — no, I — resolve to be reminded daily, always, no longer to stare blindly at the Ner Tamid. To let it serve as a reminder of my vulnerability to anger and to hatred, and to not let it overcome me in my own lifetime. I pray that we each do the same.