One of the most notable pieces of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tetzaveh, is the commandment to create within Jewish sanctuaries a ner tamid, “a constantly burning light” (Exodus 27: 20-21). When I embarked on new paths on my Jewish journey, one of the voices of direction I found myself following was that of singer Matisyahu, known for his “Hassidic-reggae” styling. His earliest album, “Live at Stubbs,” was one of the first albums I listened to in its entirety and started doing so around the time of my bar mitzvah, in 2007, two years after it came out. Looking back, one particular song seems rather ironic, “Aish Tamid.”
Playing off the idea of a ner tamid, an eternal light, introduced in this week’s parshah, Matisyahu describes the destruction of the Second Temple in the song. Matisyahu sees the aish tamid, an eternal fire, not only as the fire that continued to burn after the destruction of the Temple but also as the fire each one of us carries through Torah following and righteous living. Thus a parallel is drawn between the destruction of the Temple and its eventual rebuilding with a broken person, someone without faith, and their eventual return to faith. That faith and this aish tamid is the key to the rebuilding of both person and the Temple.
Last year, I had the privilege to travel with UCLA Hillel to watch Matisyahu live and meet with him. I prepared a business card, with a link to download my music, to give to him and a short elevator pitch about how he inspired me to not only write music, but to become more observant and wrestle with my Judaism. After a mediocre concert, littered with forgotten lines to even some of his most popular songs and gratuitously long “water breaks,” we gathered into Matisyahu’s dressing room to ask him questions.
After poking fun at the beat boxing abilities of UCLA’s own Jewish a capella group, JEWkbox, Matisyahu fielded a question about the reasoning behind his recent departure from the Chasidic lifestyle. His answer shook my world. In a roundabout way, he answered by saying he was never really sure if he ever bought into Chasidism at all. I was perplexed. I crumpled up my business card and declined to shake his hand. I felt lied to. The most passionate, genuine artist I had ever discovered just said he was not sure if the motivations behind his songs were ever real.
Looking back now, as someone who still enjoys his music, I wonder if I overreacted to a human being responding harshly to an extremely personal question. In light of this week’s Torah portion, I am conflicted between two ideas. Is Matisyahu, now, the broken man he once sang about in “Aish Tamid” searching for rebuilding but still with the ever-present divine fire despite his own suppression of it? Or, the even bigger idea, does that really matter? Back in 2005, Matisyahu’s ner tamid was fierce and bright enough to help me discover mine. So, is there a way to separate the meaning behind his music in my life from him and his current perceived brokenness? Are we each a ner tamid, the consistent fire burning within each of us lit by the divine spark and bringing light everywhere we go, or are we the shadows cast by that light, focused on the darkness of ourselves? Are we the aftermath of the Temple’s destruction or the once great glory for which is stood for, waiting to be rebuilt again?
This article is part of Ha’Am’s Friday Taste of Torah column. Each week, a different UCLA community member will contribute some words of Jewish wisdom in preparation for Shabbat.