Stoking the Perpetual Fire of Freedom
As we approach the festival of Passover, the domestic excitement and drama increase. This anticipation is seamlessly reflected in Parashat Tzav. Our Torah reading continues the theme of sacrifices that stands at the core of the book of Leviticus. The opening of the parashah describes the details of the burnt offering or olah. Leviticus 6:2–6 legislates, “The burnt offering will remain where it is burned on the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it. The priest will dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body . . . the fire on the altar will be kept burning, not to go out . . . A perpetual fire will be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” How does the description of the burnt offering connect with and echo the festival of Passover?
The biblical observance of Passover was radically different from the one that has become familiar to us over the last 2,000 years. According to Exodus 12, the Passover rite revolved around the sacrifice of the Paschal lamb—a ritual that continued until the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE. God commands Moses and Aaron to speak to the Israelites and
“say that on the tenth of this month [of Nisan] each of them will take a lamb to a family, a lamb to a household. But if the household is too small for the lamb, let him share one with a neighbor who dwells nearby . . . the Israelites will slaughter it at twilight [on the 14th] . . . They will eat the flesh that same night; they will eat it roasted over the fire, with unleavened bread and with bitter herbs . . . You will not leave any of it until morning; if any of it is left until morning, you will burn it. This is how you will eat it: your loins girded, your sandals on your feet, and your staff in hand.” (Exod. 12:3–11)
For generations, until the sacrificial rite ceased, Israelites would follow this biblical ritual. Sacrifice came to be replaced with learning, and through learning we aspire to the same goals—nearness to God, closeness to community.
That said, the similarity between Leviticus’s more general description of the burnt offering and Exodus’s narrative of the Paschal lamb is striking. To begin, both texts underscore the element of time. Exodus 12 narrates a very specific prescribed timeline of events, and both passages mandate that the ritual is concluded by daybreak. Secondly, Exodus and Leviticus focus on the precise manner in which these sacrifices are to be consumed, and clothing plays a significant role. Just as the priest dons ceremonial clothes for the occasion, so too does the Israelite dress for the part. The external harmonizes with the internal as both body and soul engage sacred time. Finally, the perpetuity of the act also connects these two narratives. Leviticus speaks of stoking a “perpetual fire,” while Exodus declares that the Passover celebration will be observed “as an institution for all time, for you and your descendants” (Exod. 12:24). As we approach Parashat Tzav (this coming Shabbat), and our seder table (the following Shabbat), let us be attuned to ritual and raiment, to time and transcendence, and to community and continuity. Attention to all of these foci enriches the Passover and our Jewish journey.
The publication and distribution of A Taste of Torah are made possible by a generous grant from Sam and Marilee Susi.