The hidden flame that lights up the world!
Table for Five: Tzav
Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist
A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out.
Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, Judaic Studies Shalhevet HS
Rabbi S.R. Hirsch (1808-1888) points out that fire on the Mizbeach (Altar) which can never go out, which he calls “the fire of the Torah”, is the source of all the rituals for which fire was required in the Beit Hamikdash, namely the Menorah, the incense, etc. even for the sacrifices on Yom Kippur. Based on this understanding he concludes with an important point: in order for the spiritual to permeate life, all actions must be consecrated to the Torah and thereby elevate the soul, illuminate the spirit and soar to the ideals of the Torah.
All the great Hasidic Masters used this verse as a source to teach the concept of Hitlahavut, referring to a deep constant enthusiasm, (in Yiddish called a “bren,” a fire) a daily zest for serving Hashem which cannot weaken or ever be extinguished.
The Baal Shem Tov (and many others) strongly suggested a recital of this verse any time negative thoughts entered a person’s mind. Rabbi Elimelech of Lizhensk (1717-1787) known as the Noam Elimelech, taught that the verse requires a constant daily increase in the spiritual realm to prevent the fire from ever weakening.
This Hasidic insight added a layer to the simple perfunctory carrying out of Mitzvot; it now meant that the performance of each commandment needed this additional excitement. This fire deeply buried in the soul of each Jew has lit up the darkness, inspired us with a creative renewal, and kept our faith alive through generations.
Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Adat Shalom
Even as a child, I felt intrigued and saddened when I heard Elton John sing, “And it seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind, never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in.” The song felt foreign and strange to me as it portrayed life as unattached and fragile.
As Jews, the sacred spark in life is supposed to be anchored in an eternal tradition, safeguarded by sanctity. This week, God commands the Kohanim to attend to the altar and keep the fire burning as an act of continual sacred devotion. In rabbinic literature, our Sages transform the burning fire into an inner passion for Torah study (Menachot 110a). The Maggid of Mezeritch further expounds that the fire within us must include Torah study as well as sacred acts.
Our Torah study and our deeds are linked. The deeds of our lives are anchored in Torah, and the Torah is manifest in our acts of goodness.
Now, all of us are responsible to protect the flame. The entire Jewish People is a kingdom of Kohanim. (Exodus 19:6) God’s instruction to the Kohanim applies to us all. We are in control of the eternal flame. Safeguard the Jewish tradition by both learning Torah and performing mitzvot. By doing so, you will bind your soul to the eternal tradition of our people, and you will not lay vulnerable like a candle in the wind.
Kylie Ora Lobell, Community and Arts Editor, The Jewish Journal
Tzav is all about the sacrifices the Kohanim would make in the Temple. When a person committed a sin, they could offer a sacrifice that would be burned on this continuous fire.
To me, the continuous fire represents two things: the Jewish people’s eternal connection with God, as well as our survival throughout the course of history in the face of near-destruction many, many times. It is the former that guarantees the latter. As long as the Jewish people uphold their duty to bring holiness to the world, God will protect us for all time.
It’s not like we even have to be perfect; by creating a place in the Temple to offer sacrifices, God is acknowledging that we will sin. There is a way home back to God, and it’s through this eternal flame.
The flame that was in the Temple may not be there anymore, but we can connect in so many other ways, including physically lighting candles of our own, on Shabbat, at havdalah and on Chanukah, as well as creating light in the world by fulfilling the mitzvot.
One day, in the Messianic age, the flame will come back. In the meantime, it’s up to us to keep it going with our actions and by continuously making our connection to God stronger and stronger.
Rabbi Nicole Guzik, Sinai Temple
Light is essential to Jewish living. We proclaim that we are a light unto the nations. We often remark that God’s light fills the soul of each human being. But a question remains: for whom are we providing the light?
The Torah purposefully uses the word, tamid. The fire on the altar is continuously burning – fire from the past providing for the present and fire from the present providing for the future. Midrash Tanhuma shares the story in which God gives the Torah to the people of Israel. To show a sign of commitment, God asks for guarantors. The people offer the Patriarchs. A pretty good gift. God says no. The people offer the Prophets. Even better. God says no. Finally, the people offer their children. Their children will be the guarantors. And God says yes. In other words, the Torah belongs to our future. Torah is taught for tomorrow.
While the light we provide may be useful for ourselves and others, the continuity of the spark isn’t really for our own benefit. As a good friend reminded me: we build not for ourselves and not even for our children. We invest perhaps for our grandchildren and great-grandchildren and most certainly for the great-great-grandchildren, the ones we will never physically meet.
Yes, light is sown for the righteous but truly, light is sown so there will be righteousness in generations to come.
Tova Leibovic-Douglas, Rabbi and Spiritual Counselor, rabbitova.com
I remember staring at the Ner Tamid, that beautiful, endless flickering light over the ark housing our beloved Torah as a child in my Jewish day school during our time to pray. I could not stop admiring that bright light and was moved by the notion of it never going out. It never occurred to me that this flame was one that we could trace back generations to our ancestors wandering in that wilderness.
In this moment of our Torah narrative, we explore the beginning of our initial form of prayer, which was originally done as sacrifice. It is bloody, it is distant, and some may say archaic. Yet, what remains true is that when it comes to spirituality and connection with Divine, we must be active participants. This moment reminds us that we are agents of our spiritual life and are invited to ignite the flame.
Most of us think that prayer or spirituality ought to happen and flow naturally. It may be why it is challenging to continue to pray regularly as doubt sets in. This moment reminds us that prayer and connection to the Divine is a two-way street and tasks us to ignite the flame. As the saying goes: love is a verb, so too, faith is a verb as well. Whether we are wandering in the wilderness, in our synagogues or in the altar of our hearts, there is always the capacity to light and maintain an everlasting flame.
With thanks to Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, Rabbi Nolan Lebovitz, Kylie Ora Lobell, Rabbi Nicole Guzik, and Tova Leibovic-Douglas
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