“Keep the Fire Alive”

Ah Leviticus.  The book that so many rabbis dread, because each week we must speak on the laws and precepts for the priests, what they must wear, what they must do and not do; we must speak on animal sacrifice, and what to do with animal fat, and how to avoid blood spatter.  Of the five books of the Torah, in my opinion at least, Leviticus is the most difficult to drash from, because the majority of verses overwhelmingly are laws, while far fewer are aggadah, the stories.  Parshat Tzav, for instance, our portion this week, is basically a to-do list for Aaron as he is elevated to the position of priest.   Moses gathers everyone to the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, pours oil on Aaron’s head, and then recites the duties God has provided that he and his family will perform as priests.  It’s not much of a conversation.  In fact, Aaron doesn’t say a word, not through all 97 verses.  So, we rabbis dig deeper. Surely there is something that we can relate to the 21st century.

So, as I read the parsha, I’ll admit, my eyes started to glaze over.  Yes, this happens to rabbis, if only for a few verses.  Thankfully, it only took me five verses before I found something surprisingly interesting and meaningful.  In the beginning of chapter 6, God is commanding Moses to command Aaron on how to properly create the ritual of the burnt offering.  Aaron is instructed that he should dress properly in linen, and take ashes and put them beside the altar, but then he needs to put on a different outfit to carry the ashes outside the camp, to somewhere clean.  But, and now it gets interesting, while Aaron is doing all this changing and carrying, the fire on the altar is to be kept burning.  Verse 5 states, “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being.”  And then, as if we would have forgotten the first part of verse 5, verse 6 states, “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”  In other words, verse 6 is basically a verbatim repetition of verse 5, that is, except for how the fire is described. In verse 6, the fire is referred to as aish tamid, while in the previous version it is just said that it must not go out.

So why the repetition?  We’re told to look out for repetitions in the Torah, as they are to point us to something important.  Here, it can be deduced that this idea of an eternal fire is something we should pay attention to.  The Rambam, Moses Maimonides, a 12th century Spanish commentator, suggests that the first verse applies only to Aaron and the priests, in that it’s their job to keep the fire burning; but the second mention applies to everyone else.  So, as Noach Dzmura describes, “it is incumbent upon all Jews to preserve this literal fire, not because it is a part of the ritual of sacrifice, or because it serves any practical purpose, but solely because it is a symbol of the presence of the Divine.”

The literal transformation of the fire on the altar is embodied in what hangs above the ark, the, now called, ner tamid, the eternal light, which glows in all synagogues with the understanding that it must always be kept burning.  If you ask anyone about the purpose of the ner tamid, they will tell you that it symbolizes God’s eternal presence, exactly what the Rambam spoke about.  It is lovely that we see a symbol in our synagogues from something thousands of years old, and in a sense, a re-interpretation of an ancient cultic ritual into something more suitable for the present.

But, when I was reading the two verses and the Rambam’s interpretation, I saw something a bit more intangible.  Today, there are no more priests in Judaism, as the Temple no longer stands; instead, there are rabbis.  Today, there are no more ritual sacrifices; instead, there is the ritualization of prayer and liturgy, and instead of filling the air with a pleasing odor from chosen beasts, we fill synagogue walls with songs of praise and blessing.  So how can we see these two commandments side-by-side, one for the priests, and one for the people?  If we envision Judaism as that flame, that fire, then the metaphor quickly falls into place.  Both the priests, and the people, are commanded to guard the flame and make sure it never goes out, keeping it an aish tamid.  Indeed, today, both the rabbis and the congregants have equal responsibility in keeping Judaism alive.  The first commandment in Tzav is for me, the rabbi, “the fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out.”  The second is for all of you, “a perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”  So what does that mean?

It got me thinking about accountability in the synagogue system.  Let’s face it, rabbis are accountable to everyone.  We are kept in check by our conference, the CCAR, we are held accountable by congregants, we are held accountable to the board of representatives of our synagogues, and in many ways, we are held accountable to the Union for Reform Judaism.  Congregations, on the other hand, don’t seem to be accountable to anyone, at least not at first glance.  Many synagogues are their own silos, answering to no one but themselves.  The Union for Reform Judaism certainly bears no authority on the congregations, especially now, with synagogue dues as a point of contention. If the URJ makes a ruling a congregation doesn’t like, it can simply, depart from the Union, as many have done, or thought about doing.  It’s a pretty difficult dynamic and causes some unease between the rabbis and their congregations, with the congregation in a place of extreme power, and the rabbi in a position of incredible scrutiny.  But looking at Tzav, maybe we can find some common ground.  Maybe there is something we are both meant to be accountable to, on equal footing: the sustainment of the Jewish people. We may go about it in different ways, with different understandings, different strategies, indeed different points of view, but in the end the burden of keeping Judaism going rests equally upon all our shoulders.  It is up to both of us to keep the fire burning, keep the flame from going out.  When the priests are too busy carrying ash to the woods, it’s up to the congregants to keep watch; and when the congregants are sleeping or too busy, it’s up to the priests to tend the fire.  What that hopefully means is that no matter who believes they are in charge, who holds more schooling or who holds more experience, we are all working towards the same goal.

Recently, I engaged in a conversation discussing where we, as the Reform Movement, are going. As part of that conversation, a question was asked: How to properly respond when we’re told about the Pew studies, and how Judaism is dying? One colleague offered a quote from Rabbi David Ellenson, past president of the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion: “Every generation of Jews has had a vocal minority that believed sincerely that they were the last generation… and every one of them has been wrong.” It was an interesting idea. Once we move past that fear, that idea of dread that the Jewish people can’t be saved because of urbanization, reduction in synagogue membership, a less religious emphasis among the younger generations, or whatever other challenges we’ve heard over and over again, we should realize that the generations before us have stood where we have stood, tending the fire to Judaism, making sure it will not go out.  It’s on all of us, equally, to make sure that happens.  Not just you, not just me.  All of us must watch the fire.

In my time at the Hebrew Congregation of St. Thomas thus far, I have officiated almost 80 Bar or Bat Mitzvah ceremonies.  During each ceremony, I allow the student to hold on to our Holocaust Torah, from Buden, telling them the story that this Torah was meant to exist in a museum in Prague, in a world where there were no Jews left on earth.  But instead, it is there, in the arms of another young man or woman, who proclaim the opposite of what Hitler wanted; indeed, the opposite of what so many generations wanted, whether it be the crusaders, the inquisitors, the Cossacks, the progroms.  By the young man or woman holding onto that Torah, they proclaim Am Yisrael Chai, the people of Israel live, and L’dor vador, from generation to generation.  Each time I give this speech, the eyes of the guests begin to tear up, and I myself get a bit emotional.  This is how we are working together to tend the fire, to keep the fire of Judaism burning, each one of us serving in the role we have been given.  It is what we are accountable to, it is the task we are charged with.  I’m not worried that when the next generation takes the place of the previous that Judaism’s fire will no longer burn.  I have no doubt that the fire will keep going because of dedicated rabbis and congregants all over the world. The fire may look different than it did, but it looks different than it did from Aaron and Moses’ time as well.  So, Tzav is giving you a task.  Tzav is holding you accountable.  How will you keep the fire alive?


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