This week's Torah reading discusses details of the sacrificial service, the ancient Israelites' way of connecting with God. Although these passages may be of historical interest, the specifics of the animals, meal offerings and oil libations may leave readers cold. What do they have to do with our lives so many centuries later, when our worship is so very different?
And yet, every so often, a phrase in the Torah text leaps out at us and demands attention; here's something we can connect with, even across the ages that separate us from ancient Israel.
For me, this year, just such a phrase appeared near the beginning of parshah Tzav. While discussing the actions of the priests, the Torah teaches us that a fire must be kept burning on the altar and that it may not be extinguished. Lest we miss its significance, the Torah repeats this command no less than four times in a short passage. Why should this be the case?
In the context of sacrificial worship, perhaps this was a practical matter — keeping a fire burning made it easier to offer sacrifices at their proper times, and it may even have provided the means with which to light the menorah, the seven-branched candelabrum that was lit each evening to burn through until morning.
But Jewish tradition took this continually burning flame to be far more than a practical concern that applied only to the time in which sacrifice was the center of Jewish life. Indeed, a central feature of nearly every synagogue became the ner tamid, the "eternal light," which represents the flame that had to be kept burning on the altar in the ancient sanctuary in the wilderness. So clearly Jews have seen great meaning in that ever-burning flame.
For some, the flame represents the persistence of God's sheltering presence, the protection and inspiration of the Divine that is with us always, whether in moments of celebration or in times of sadness and pain. For others, the flame represents the continuity of the Jewish people, the so-called "ever-dying people" that nonetheless remains alive and vital. We have seen throughout history how the flame of Jewish life flickers and flickers but stubbornly refuses to go out, and the "eternal light" in our synagogues is a powerful reminder of that awesome fact.
While I find both of those interpretations of the flame inspiring, this year I am thinking about how that flame on the altar was kept burning. As anyone who has sat around a fire knows, flames do not keep burning on their own. Without constant attention, and without the addition of new wood when needed, the fire soon peters out. The ancients knew this, and one of the jobs of the priests was to tend that fire and make sure it kept burning brightly.
That is the task that I see the Jewish people taking on in our own time — pouring their energy and time into Jewish communities, Jewish learning and Jewish celebrations; tending to each other's needs and the needs of those around them; and welcoming children into the joys, mysteries and challenges of Jewish tradition. That is what I see when I look into the ner tamid — an "eternal light" that is only eternal because we, in our generation, give of ourselves to make it so.
Fire, like Jewish life, is a process, not a product; it is always changing, never static. May we always keep renewing our flame together, and may it ever burn brightly.
Rabbi Adam Zeff serves as rabbi of Germantown Jewish Centre in Philadelphia. Email him at: [email protected]ermantownjewishcentre.org.