Burn On, Not Out: What Parashat Tzav Has to Teach Us About Observing Pesach

Parashat Tzav 5781 / פרשת צַו
Torah Portion: Leviticus 6:1-8:36 

If a person today were to measure their standards of Passover preparation and observance against this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, that person would most likely be paralyzed with fear. Unlike last week’s reading which discussed sin offerings intended to atone for a variety of sins committed unintentionally, this week’s reading offers no such out. For sins involving sexual depravity, wanton disregard for mitzvot, and defilement of sacrifices in the Tabernacle there was no expiation. The Torah is very clear that the person who commits these particular sins is “to be cut off from his kin.” The term for “being cut off” is karet, in Hebrew, and it can mean anything from an untimely death for both body and soul, natural death in which the soul is banned from the World to Come, or untimely death in which the soul is given its place in the world to come.

If any of us thought our bodies and souls were on the line when we go to clean our homes for Passover or adhere to the strict dietary laws of Passover, we would either freeze or run in the other direction. 

Fortunately, the laws of Passover as we know them are nowhere to be found in this week’s Torah portion. In fact, most mitzvot relating to Passover, short of eating matzah, remembering the Exodus from Egypt and telling our children about what God did for us in bringing us out of Egypt, are not found in the Torah at all. They were developed by later generations of rabbis over hundreds of years. So if you think by not covering your countertops with contact paper you are violating Torah from Sinai, you are not. Breath easy.

When it comes to the rabbinic laws, there are more than I could possibly explain to you while standing on one foot. There are many, in fact, that I have yet to learn. Even so, are we to judge ourselves or others by the very high standards of the most halachically observant, those who strive to follow Jewish law to the nth degree? Of course not. No such thing is expected of any of us by our neighbors, our families or by God. (I can’t speak for other Jews in ultra-Orthodox sects.)

We are entitled to be authentically Jewish in ways that are relevant to us, meaningful and, perhaps most importantly, achievable. If you find no meaning in the requirement to eat kosher meat, there are other ways to show spiritual discipline, regard for life and connection to the Jewish people. Can’t find that kosher for Passover grape jelly. It’s okay!

I am clearly of the camp that says do what you can do under the circumstances in which you are living and be satisfied.

In adhering to this position, I take a cue from another part of this week’s Torah portion. In order to maintain the sacrificial system the priests had to put wood upon the altar each morning in order to keep a perpetual flame going. It is referred to as an “esh tamid.” A perpetual fire. They could not let it go out.

Maintaining the fire did not fall to one person. It was a collective effort. Not only that, it was sufficient to put only enough wood on the altar each morning to keep the flame lit. The priests were not charged with creating a perpetual conflagration or a massive bonfire. They had to do enough. And that was enough.

As Jews we are inheritors of that obligation to keep the flame lit. It is incumbent upon us to make Judaism relevant, meaningful and achievable for our children and their children in perpetuity. I believe there is something beautiful in Judaism that makes it worthwhile to perpetuate. I believe our calling to repair the world makes it essential to perpetuate.

But we are not alone. Each of us has a role to play according to our mindset and ability. We are to do our part in keeping the flame alive. If we are not able to rid our homes of every single crumb of hametz, the Jewish people will survive and probably thrive. The same with all other aspects of preparation and observance. If you buy a can of tuna or drink a Diet Pepsi that isn’t labeled “Kosher for Passover,” God won’t be offended. You won’t be cut off from your kin. And still, the flame of Judaism will continue to burn. 

I would suggest, in fact, that if any of us were to observe the laws of Passover too stringently, we would burn out. There’s no Jewish future if we all burn out. If we burn out, the fire of the Jewish People burns out. So we stoke the fire gently, within our means, and without fear of retribution or judgment from our rabbi, other Jews or from God.

In order to have a truly kosher and joyous Passover — a chag kasher v’sameach — we need to be able to relax and actually enjoy the holiday. We need to be like the Romans the ancient rabbis tried to emulate, leaning, relaxing, celebrating our freedom, soaking in the return of new life that comes with spring, and be available to one another as loving family members and supportive members of a community.

I wish each and every one of you a happy and health Pesach, no matter how you choose to celebrate the Festival of our Freedom.

Shabbat Shalom.

Stoking the Fire of Divine-Human Connection

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.