Parashat Tzav / פרשת צו
Torah Portion: Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36
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 on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual fire – aish tamid – shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. Leviticus 6:5-6
In this week’s reading, we continue to learn how the priests were to offer animal and meal sacrifices upon the altar in the Tabernacle, Israel’s cumbersome but portable sanctuary in the wilderness. One detail worth noting is that the fire on the sacrificial altar was to remain lit perpetually, morning and night. Even as the Israelites wandered from one camp to the next, the fire burned, the altar being equipped with special polls to allow its transport by the priests. The priests would add wood to the fire each morning to ensure that there remained a perpetual fire, an aish tamid, to consume the numerous offerings the priests would place upon the altar each day.
This aish tamid of the altar is distinct from the more familiar ner tamid. In the Torah, the ner tamid refers to the flames of the ornate seven-branched menorah that stood in the Tabernacle. Unlike the fire of the sacrificial altar, the flames were allowed to burn out each night. It was the job of the priests to rekindle the flames regularly each morning, the term for regularly also being “tamid.”
The contrast between the ner tamid and the aish tamid holds for me considerable meaning. The ner tamid represents God’s eternal presence in the midst of Israel. The light of the menorah was understood as a metaphor even by the ancients, who did not fret when the light went out; they simply refilled the cups of the menorah with fresh olive oil the next day and set the oil afire once again. Of course, our biblical ancestors also had the Ark of the Covenant, which they considered to be God’s footstool. The people could rest assured that so long as they remained faithful to the covenant, God would always be there for them, and one of the ways they kept faith with God was through the sacrifices they offered.
What about the aish tamid? What is its meaning? If the ner tamid symbolized God’s presence for our ancestors, the aish tamid represented their significant, ongoing efforts to connect with that presence. Now, the work of cutting wood, clearing the ashes from the altar, and replenishing the wood on the altar was messy, difficult work, but necessary. Without a constantly stoked fire, there wouldn’t have been enough heat on the altar to consume the various offerings, especially those involving larger animals. Meanwhile, because our ancestors imagined that the aroma of the sacrifices was pleasing to God, they were fully committed to keeping the aish tamid perpetually lit. For them, a happy God meant a safe and secure Israel.
Today, we no longer have a Tabernacle or a Temple in which to offer sacrifices to keep God happy. Yet, it’s not the case that we are entirely without a sacrificial system or an aish tamid. When we pray, study and do acts of loving kindness, for example, we connect with God, who permeates all being. We “offer” ourselves to God in ways that involve self-sacrifice, (though it’s unlikely that our biblical ancestors would have considered our actions sacrifices). In addition, our rabbis teach us that our dinner tables, where we offer blessings and gather in fellowship with friends and family, are our altars.
The aish tamid? The aish tamid now resides as the passion within us with which we strive to draw near to the Divine. This inner “fire,” like the physical aish tamid of the Tabernacle, is something that we must work to keep active all the time, lest we become out of touch with the Godliness around us.
Rashi, the preeminent medieval commentator, teaches that the priests would kindle the lights of the ner tamid with the fire from the aish tamid. The one could not exist without the other! The ongoing efforts of our ancestors to reach out to God by stoking the fire of the altar was necessary to make God’s presence real in their lives. In the absence of the “pleasing odor,” our ancestors could not be sure that God would always be there for them. As long as the smoke continued to rise to God’s nostrils, however, the people could feel confident that God was responding to their needs.
Rashi’s teaching suggests that when we offer ourselves to God through prayer, study, and acts of loving kindness, we, too, increase God’s light in the world. God becomes manifest through our expressions of gratitude, awe, and repentance, through our efforts to understand our people’s history and beliefs, through our actions to draw people together and heal the world. When we tend the aish tamid within our own souls, we move closer to God and God moves closer to us.
May we perpetually tend our inner aish tamid and know that the Holy One is constantly near.