In our Faye Rubenstein Weiss Sanctuary, a beautiful room, the flame-like wrought-iron light above the Ark is the Ner Tamid, the Eternal Light. We have Eternal Lights above the Arks in all our praying spaces.
Flames have played an important symbolic role in Judaism. In the Temple in Jerusalem there was of course fire for burnt offerings. There was, some say, from Aaron’s instructions in constructing the Tabernacle in Exodus 30:1, a continually burning incense censor made of acacia wood overlaid with gold in front of the Ark of the Covenant in the Temple. And there was the large menorah - the original Eternal Light - in the Temple, burning inside the western section.
In Parashat Tetzaveh (Exodus 27:20 et seq.), where the building of the Temple is described, the Israelites are told to “bring clear oil of beaten olives for lighting, for kindling lamps regularly. Aaron and his sons shall set them up in the Tent of Meeting, outside the curtain which is over [the Ark of] the Pact, [to burn] from evening to morning before the Lord. It shall be a due from the Israelites for all time, throughout the ages.”
The Ner Tamid represents God’s eternal, bright, warm, burning presence in our lives, lighting the path - the Torah - for us to read and understand.
In later times, in synagogues, the lamp burned oil, and it had to be tended by a gabbai who made certain it did not go out. This seems to be one of the few practices carried through the ages from the days of the Temple. Those who gave money to the fund for the light’s upkeep were mentioned in a Mi Sheberakh long recited after the Torah reading on Shabbat. At first, Eternal Light was mounted above the western wall of a synagogue, to remember the Temple’s menorah location, but later practice has it was mounted above the Ark, as Aaron had originally been instructed to place his lamp.
Nowadays, we use electric lights. Yes, they do go out, and we try to replace the lamps expediently. I recall being in a synagogue where the fellow who had created the Ner Tamid had recently passed away, and the light was out when we arrived for services on Shabbat. Adat Shalom Reconstructionist Congregation in Bethesda, Maryland, which strives for environmental wholesomeness, was reportedly one of the first to power its Ner Tamid with solar power. Perhaps soon ours will be solar-powered as well!