Chancellor's Parashah Commentary
Parashat Tzav 5760
March 25, 2000 18 Adar II 5760
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Rabbinic Fellow at JTS
Parashat Tsav discusses the role of the priests in the Temple and emphasizes the vigilance with which they were to offer sacrifices. As the parasha opens, Aaron and his sons are commanded to tend to the ritual of the burnt offering. "A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out" (Leviticus 6:6). On one level, those responsible kept the flames of the altar continually burning by adding wood every day, stoking the fire and keeping watch. The constant attention and dedication necessary for this daily task are impressive in themselves. But, what did this aish tamid, perpetual flame, symbolize? And how does this seemingly distant commandment inform our lives today as modern Jews?
In his commentary on the Torah entitled, Ad Tumam (To the Very End), Professor Ze'ev Falk discusses the symbolism of this perpetual fire commanded by God. The fire continually burning, Falk writes, "expresses the presence of God's Indwelling." For it is not enough for the Israelites to offer sacrifices whose aim it is to bring them closer to God's Presence. A visual symbol of God's Presence must stand in their midst at all times. That symbol is the perpetual fire. Further, fire has both Divine and human qualities. While on the one hand, in its mysteriousness and unpredictability, fire is very much representative of the Divine, on the other hand, its fragileness and ephemerality speak to humanness. It is truly a gift of God, maintained and strengthened by the hands of human beings. Torah, too, is a gift of God, that requires human care to be perpetuated. "In the life of the individual Jew," Falk writes, "the Torah expresses perpetuity: for in Psalms it is written, 'I will guard your Torah always' (Psalms 119:44) and in Proverbs, 'Guard the commandments of your fathers and do not abandon the Torah of your mothers; tie them to your heart always.' (Proverbs 6:21)" (Falk, 247). Passion for the teachings of the Torah ties us into an ancient history, a meaningful present, and a hopeful future.
After the destruction of the First and Second Temples, the connection between the aish tamid and Torah became especially poignant. Despite the fact that the Israelites could no longer offer physical sacrifices to God, other ways were found in which to keep a 'perpetual fire' burning. And so the inheritors of the priestly class, the rabbis of the Mishna and Talmud, mandated a new daily, repetitive task to keep the Jew continually connected to God – that of fixed, daily prayer. Just as daily sacrifices were commanded by the Torah, so too did daily prayer become a commandment. Moreover, the task of maintaining a spiritual fire framed by prayer became just as serious an obligation as caring for the Temple's physical aish tamid, perpetual fire.
The rabbis of the Talmud recognized the challenge of maintaining one's inner passion. "When you pray," our sages wrote, "make your prayer not a routine but a plea for mercy and supplication before the Holy One, blessed be He." Rabbi Eliezer comments, "when a person makes prayer routine, it is no longer supplication." Rabbah and Rav Joseph both declare that prayer without supplication refers to one who is unable to bring something fresh into the prayer experience (Berachot 29b). For Rabbah and Rav Joseph, maintaining a spiritual fire means bringing freshness into one's prayer experience daily. It is not sufficient to merely recite the prayers and go through the routine.
Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter (1847–1905), author of the Torah commentary known as the Sefat Emet, offers another understanding of what it means to maintain a spiritual fire. He writes, "there needs to burn in [the human soul] a fiery longing to worship the Creator, and this longing has to be renewed each day . . . this arousal of love in Israel's hearts is the Service of the Heart, that which takes the place of sacrificial offerings" (Translation by Arthur Green, The Language of Truth, 155). For Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter, not only was it important to bring something new into the prayer experience daily, but that innovation was to be infused with a love of God. A sense of longing and desire, then, are a necessary part of tending to one's own spiritual flame.
Innovation in prayer and a longing for God have the power to bring the Divine into our midst — to perpetuate a sense of God's Dwelling among us. The challenge for each of us is to both ignite our spiritual consciousness and find that spiritual model which speaks to our own personal lives. Abraham Joshua Heschel presents two compelling models of passionate, spiritual devotion from which each of us may learn. First is the Baal Shem Tov who felt that, "a Jew should serve God with ardor" and that it was "necessary, vital, to have fire in the soul." But Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk felt that the flame should "be steady and burn at full force, though deeply concealed" (Heschel, A Passion for Truth, 48–50). The Baal Shem Tov desired a flaming personality that could radiate the light and love of Torah and God from the inside out; moments of spiritual ecstasy keep the flame continually burning. For the Kotzker rebbe, it is steadiness and directedness that keeps an internal, concealed flame driving the individual.
Igniting a meaningful spiritual passion in the depths of our souls is an intensely personal endeavor. In my own life, I have found that a community united in the song–filled liturgy of Kabbalat Shabbat, Friday night, touches my spiritual depth; creating a home life infused with Jewish learning and observance has further brought a deeper sense of God and passion into my spiritual life; and learning with my many adult students over the course of my typical week enlivens my spiritual self. This is but one example of personal spirituality. Our world however is full of many models of spiritual passion — indeed, for every soul there exists a unique path to God. By continually searching for our own personal path to God, we can truly be the inheritors of a sacred aish tamid.
Shabbat shalom u–mevorach,