Light Shines Down on Our Tree of Life

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Ner Tamid hanging in a synagogue. Image courtesy of FLLL/Wikimedia.

Days after eleven lives are extinguished, the ner tamid shines brightly. The ever-glowing light shines in every synagogue, never extinguished. It’s a remembrance of G-d’s fire-filled conversations with Abraham and Moses, a promise that the Jews will one day be as plentiful as the stars burning in the sky. The ner tamid continues to shine when there’s a bris, when there’s a marriage, when there’s a massacre.
Each synagogue is connected through these pinpricks of light, a map to a global community. The constellations light from every continent, shining bright in the darkness. Jews are guided among and between these North Stars, pointing the way toward a better world. As more people are guided to the light of each synagogue, the warmth of our community grows.
The spark of life within each of us darkens with each tragedy, but also drives us toward one another. At the Sacramento memorial gathering, the crowd pulses with emotion and one feels the vibration in the air. Mournful songs ring out, but there is also hope as people clap wildly for speakers who promise there is a brighter future. Behind me are a thousand people spread out within and between seats set up for a few hundred. The synagogue’s walls reverberate with communal love, and we shine together to reflect the darkness that comes after a massacre.
As the Hebrew mourning prayers surge through me, my grandfather’s memory rises within. The Holocaust was a dark shadow upon his life, and his family’s existence was a great middle finger to Nazis’ attempt to condemn his life. Tears stream down my face as I silently repeat, “Let it only be these 11. Please don’t let them have died in vain. Please, G-d, don’t let the light of our community dim like it did 80 years ago.”
Twenty years ago, three synagogues were fire bombed by White Nationalists in my Sacramento hometown. As our community mourned the burnt ashes, we were also grateful there was no loss of life. Sanctuaries were rebuilt more beautiful than they started, now glowing under natural light that better illuminated our caring community. Hate tried to extinguish our Jewish light, but the savagery was met with love. Assemblyman Darrell Steinberg ignited the Unity Center, an interactive exhibit that explores communities’ differences and commonalities. Synagogues aided synagogues, and non-Jews housed our community. Our shared humanity lit a path through the dark times.
Its almost twenty years later, and over a thousand people stand together against hate. The space overflows with unexpected community, and we make ourselves comfortable without enough chairs or song sheets. Unsolicited, the younger man to my right hands me his program, volunteering to share with his neighbor. To my left sits a woman whose wrinkled hands hold tight to her walker, protecting unsuspecting aisle sitters from an accidental bump. The leaders ask us to rise, and old and young sway to ancient Hebrew melodies. Together, we are reinvigorated, renewing our own source of light by comforting and sharing space with strangers and friends.
My daughter sits between my legs. Her soft skin is against mine, a safe point in the realm of uncertainty. Her agitated body shuffles sideways and longways and any which way, adulthood not yet having captured her animated blaze.
Every Shabbat I whisper into her ear the priestly blessing:
May G-d bless you and keep you
May G-d cause the divine light to shine upon you and be gracious to you
May G-d turn toward you, and grant you peace
This evening we are the priests blessing one another. We are the divine. We bring each other peace and grant it to our neighbors.
The service ends, and my daughter’s hand searches for mine. As hundreds of people stream past us she whispers, “I’m glad we came here. I feel better when I’m with other people after something bad happens.” For the rest of the night she snuggles next to me, her body uncharacteristically calm.
Days later the darkness settles around us, bringing forth the light of Shabbat candles. My hands gingerly touch my daughter’s head and I whisper the centuries-old priestly blessing. Love warms my body, and unexpected emotion tears through me. She is the proof that the world can be a heavenly place, full of people connected through love and hardship. It is our communal divine light that brightens the darkness, and I know that our future will one day shine brightly upon us.
Margee Burch  passionately promotes egalitarian and participatory community in her middle school social studies class, whenever she asks her children to clean the house, and during member-led Shabbat gatherings. She is co-founder and president of the Sacramento Jewish community Kol Rinah, where she forces other people to cook Shabbat dinner for her on the regular.