Aside from two pragmatic implications, the Torah’s lessons have an eternal relevance on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of our being.
Our Torah portion this week, Tzav, has a series of instructions to the Kohanim about tending the fire on the Altar of the Tabernacle, and subsequently in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. It concludes with, “There shall be a constant fire kept burning on the altar, without being extinguished.”
The Jerusalem Talmud presents two practical laws from the word “constant.” Namely, this fire must be kept burning even on Shabbat, despite the fact that starting or stoking a fire on Shabbat is normally prohibited. Secondly, even though ritual defilement precludes a person from entering the Tabernacle and performing the various sacrificial rites, if no undefiled priests are available, ritually defiled priests are allowed to perform these rituals, including tending the fire on the Altar. Aside from these two pragmatic implications, the Torah’s lessons have an eternal relevance on the spiritual and psychological dimensions of our being.
The Altar hints to the heart of man, the place where burns the fire of our emotions and feelings. Similarly, our divine fire — our enthusiastic desire to cling to God through studying God’s Torah, fulfilling God’s commandments and revealing God’s presence in the world — must also be constantly stoked and always kept alive. Let us explore what it means to do so “even on Shabbat” and “even in times of defilement.”
The essence of Shabbat is the ascent of our consciousness from an active orientation of transforming the world into a refined home for God, to have a passive orientation of experiencing the world as already being God’s home. This why we are forbidden to engage in weekday work on Shabbat: Involvement with worldly, material affairs contravenes the higher reality of Shabbat. Cognizant of this, we might think that whenever we enter into a Shabbat-like experience, i.e., when we recognize and become absorbed in the divine, become engaged with matters of spirit and godliness and disconnect from the coarse material plane, we don’t need to have that inner divine fire of enthusiasm stoked. After all, we are steeped in lofty spiritual matters.
Comes therefore this lesson, “even on Shabbat.” Our connection with God must never become a purely intellectual affair, but must always set our hearts aflame. This passion and emotional presence is a necessary prerequisite for every level of divine connection.
At the other end of the spiritual spectrum, we may sometimes feel so distant from the Torah’s expectations of us, or otherwise encumbered by negative spiritual baggage, that it is hard for us to imagine how we could even begin to live in accordance with such ideals. As if our connection and relevance to this eternal flame is elusive. In times of such pessimism, we are told to keep our divine fire burning also in times of “ritual defilement,” even when we feel unqualified or unable to enter the realms of holiness.
On the contrary, it is this drive that will catapult a person from this lowly state and elevate him higher and higher. By keeping our Jewish enthusiasm fired even in such times, the divine flame within each of us will eventually burn away all the impediments to joyful, holy living.
As the early Chasidic master, Rabbi Dovber of Mezritch, interprets this verse, “If the [inner] fire [of the heart] is kept burning continuously, it will extinguish all negativity.” But the fire can only work its magic if it is kept burning continuously. Any lapse in enthusiasm is an opportunity for pessimism to creep in. An intermittent fire or perhaps the memory of recent flames is not enough to protect ourselves from falling prey to sadness, anxiety, bad habits, unhealthy cravings, damaging dependences and harmful compulsions. We must become adept at feeding our inner fire to keep it burning, no matter how our moods may vary.
Each and every one of us can make it a priority to tend to this constant divine flame in our inner tabernacle. Our Jewish practice is a natural outgrowth of that fire, and can be done with true enthusiasm, not only out of rote or culture. We don’t need be satisfied with only doing that which is obligatory, the bare minimum. By enhancing and beautifying our mitzvot, we are enhancing and beautifying our connection with God. This is a true expression of our inner soul flame. Stoke the fires; our essence depends upon it.
Shraga Sherman, senior rabbi at Chabad of the Main Line, teaches and counsels extensively throughout the Main Line. The Board of Rabbis of Greater Philadelphia is proud to provide the Torah commentary for the Jewish Exponent.