Our Parashah this week, Tzav, opens with a command to Moses to explain to Aaron and the priesthood their duties in regard to the Altar and the sacrifices. Last week’s parasha highlighted the various offerings: sin, guilt, meal, and peace offering. This week’s portion continues discussing them but this time from the point of view of the priests. Tzav outlines how the priests shall receive it and how they shall actually make the offering on the altar. Oh I love Leviticus. Sacrifice, Sacrifice and more sacrifice … fire and cooking meat … sounds like a Texas BBQ.
The portion contains however some important information about the altar itself. Or more importantly, the flame on the altar. Aaron and his sons, the priests must keep the flame burning on the altar continuously. It is not to go out. Three times in the opening lines of the portion this is stressed. The Torah says, “…the fire of the Altar should keep a flame on it,” (Lev. 6:2) and again in verse 5, “ The fire on the Altar shall be kept burning on it, it shall not be extinguished;” (Lev. 6:5). Then again in verse six it states, “ A permanent fire shall remain a flame on the altar; it shall not be extinguished,” (Lev. 6:6).
This fire consumes the offerings placed upon it. But this fire symbolizes much more. According to the tradition, the flame crouched on the altar like a lion but blazed like the sun. (Yoma 21 b). The fire of the altar was different –a holy fire—and this is why the priests had to attend to it and keep it burning…. It had unique properties—perhaps not unlike the finger of God that burned and etched the Ten Commandments in stone for Moses.
In the Talmud passage in Yoma the rabbis write: “Has it not been taught: Five things were reported about the fire of the pile of wood: It was laying like a lion, it was as clear as sunlight, its flame was of solid substance, it devoured wet wood like dry wood, and it caused no smoke to arise from it?
The Rabbinic reading understood that the fire on the altar was unique. Its properties were properly Divine hence it was low and strong, solid but clear. But by bringing in and mixing earthly fire with that sacred fire then and only then was the olah offering consumed.
It takes both the divine fire and the earthly fire combined to properly bring about a transformational moment!
And so tonight, a story about fire from our Hassidic tradition.
Whenever the Baal Shem Tov, the great master of Hasidism, saw misfortune threatening the Jews, it was his custom to go into a certain part of the forest to meditate. There he would light a big fire in just a certain way, he would say a special prayer, sing a little nigun, a melody with no words, (such as we sang earlier this afternoon) and the miracle would be accomplished and the terrible threat averted.
A generation later, when his student, the Maggid of Mezritch, needed to do the same thing on behalf of his community, to pray to heaven for protection, he would go to that same place in the forest and say “Master of the Universe, listen! I do not know how to light the fire… but I can sing that little tune, and I still remember the prayer!” and again, the miracle would be accomplished.
And yet another generation later, Rabbi Moishe Leib of Sasov, the heir to the Maggid of Mezritch, in order to save his people once more, would go into that same spot in the forest and say,” Dear God I do not know how to light that fire, and I do not know the prayer, and even the little song I don’t remember so well, but You can see I know where the place is, and this must be sufficient.” And what do you know? It was enough just to be in the place and the miracle was accomplished.
Then, years later, it fell to Rabbi Yisroel of Rhizin to overcome misfortune for his community. Sitting in his armchair, his head in his hands, and he spoke to God, saying: “I am unable to light the fire and I do not know the prayer, can’t remember how the song goes, and I cannot even find the place in the forest. All I can do is tell the story about how the Baal Shem tov used to go and do these things in that place. I only remember the story. And it was sufficient.
The Stories we tell one another are powerful. There are many reasons, no doubt, that God created human beings, but one has to be because God loves stories. God gave us the facility of language to tell those stories, and gave us each other to listen to them.
So what is the importance of this story … is it the fire, the song or the place? I would answer it is each and all three together.
First, the fire. Did you kindle fire in your home this evening. By that I mean light the Shabbat Candles. 4th Grade Families, we did it together tonight. Did you bring the flame of Shabbat into your heart as we draw it each week? The fire of the Shabbat candles does not provide warmth, it barely provides light, but the fire kindles our soul. It makes this day unique and special. It reminds us of the divine relationship and it connects us with the generations of our families that have kindled sacred fire. When we are lost or alone, the memory of our ancestors grounds us in this world. We no longer feel that we are adrift. We have purpose and a message and a hope for the future. The fire is important.
The song. All of us have a song the courses through us. Of course, mine is lip synced but we have a song. There is a melody to our lives that also binds us to a deep tradition. It is the well-spring of our faith. Whether it is a particular melody or any sacred tune, something draws us in when we hear it. My Aunt has suffered from early onset Alzheimer’s for years. And probably for the past 5 years has barely been able to communicate to family. But she has been humming a tune, all day long, constantly that seems to calm her and occupy her and ground her. The tune is embedded in her psyche. None of us recognize it. To me it is the collective tunes of our faith. She is praying every day. The melody is important.
Now, the place. What draws us to high places along the way? How do we know we are home but for the feeling of comfort when we stand in a place and smile. Never having been to TBT before June 29th, when Dora and I drove up, even before we entered the building, we knew we were home. This was the place. All of us have a place. Whether it’s a sanctuary or a mountain, a lake or a cave … all of us can close our eyes and find the place that connects us to the Holy in our lives. For me its easy, sacred places roll around in my head all the time. They are spaces where I can sense the Holy and Blessed One. For others, there is one place or one moment. Find that moment. These places are important.
Fire, song and place. It takes each and all to save the Jewish people. If we only had one, we would be great. But all three, a power could be unleashed in this world that could be transformative.
Today we have no Temple. We make no sacrificial offering upon an altar. The flame we must tend to is the flame of our spirituality, the flame of our faith. The melodies are many and the place is here. We can bring about a sense of kedusha, a sense of holiness that fills our lives and fills up the emptiness that so pervades our age.
If we can tend to our own flame, and continue to stoke the flame of our faith and hope in a world redeemed, we can like the priest of old keep the Divine presence in our midst.
But beyond the personal and into the selfless, Feeding the hungry, caring for the widow and orphan, clothing the naked, welcoming strangers into our community, contributing to the communal tzedakah box are just a small example of the ways in which we tend the flames that enable us to serve others and serve God. The fire on the altar shall burn day and night. It shall never be extinguished. The Ner Tamid over the ark must be maintained for all time. And we must always place the divine presence before us in all that we do.
May we always maintain a burning desire to serve our community through acts of justice, peace, and love and participate regularly and perpetually in the sacred acts that make our community a place of wholeness and holiness.
The altar today is the altar inside each of us. We can offer sacrifices of our time, talents and treasures. We can offer a commitment to living our lives with a pervasive sense of the sacred. That is the flame that should burn continually, the melody that pours from our hearts and the sacred place that we create. And we pray, this will never be extinguished.