Community Torah Corner, March 29, 2024

Rabbi Sara Blumenthal
Congregation Agudath Israel
Caldwell, NJ
Parashat Tzav

We all have daily, weekly, and annual routines that give our lives structure, comfort us, keep us healthy, and help us stay organized. As Jews, our time-honored rituals similarly structure our lives, allowing us to experience the sacred alongside the mundane. For the Israelites, the mishkan was the place where the mundane and sacred came together in the routines and rituals surrounding the sacrifices. 

In this week’s parasha, Tzav, we learn that a priest was to feed wood to the fire on the altar each morning so that the olah, the burnt offering, could be offered every day. Aaron and his sons receive specific instructions about the fire: it should be kept burning at all times, not to go out. Isn’t it the case that a perpetually burning fire, by definition, will not be extinguished? Why the apparent redundancy? 

A midrash in Sifra teaches that the fire was kept burning even during Shabbat, when the priests were in a state of tumah, ritual impurity, or while they were on the move. How did they manage to preserve the flame while actively journeying? The midrash explains that the priests would take the fire from the altar, place it in a vessel, and cover it as they traveled. Even when it seemed impossible to keep the sacred fire burning, the priests found a way.

There is something comforting about the constant presence of a flame on the altar. At the same time, I imagine it was exhausting to have to keep supplying the wood and tending to the coals on the altar morning after morning. Maybe that was why God commanded the priests to carry out this daily task: it took dedication, discipline, and ingenuity to keep the fire burning. It could not have happened without the priests or their devotion. 

Today, as we navigate the exhausting demands on our daily lives, how do we keep the fire  burning in ourselves and in our communities? How do we stay passionate, committed, and active Jews and citizens in trying times like these? Let us draw strength and inspiration from our priestly ancestors, who adapted to their circumstances, continuing to serve God with creativity and the resolve to not let the fire go out. May we, too, keep our traditions strong, keep showing up for ourselves and others, and keep the flame alight.