Parashat Tzav

Tending Flames, Seeing Faces

Like the fire that always burned on the altar, we should make sure that our inner fires of compassion always inspire us to work for justice for all of humanity.

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Tzav is only the second parashah in Leviticus, but already we are immersed in the sacrificial rites. In great detail we read the instructions for sacrificing burnt offerings, meal offerings, sin offerings, guilt offerings, and the like. In the second half of the portion, we read how Moses enacted the sacrificial rite by which Aaron and his sons were anointed as priests.

Is it Repellent?

Many of us find this material hard going, if not utterly repellent. But Judaism is known for the art of textual interpretation, and this portion is a prime example. As Rabbi Arthur Green has pointed out, the opening verses of Tzav have long been interpreted as speaking of the deepest, most inward form of spirituality. In the Sephardic and hasidic prayerbooks, these opening verses are recited each morning as a prelude to daily worship.

How was Tzav transformed in this way?

The opening verses of Leviticus 6 state:

fire in the torah"This is the Torah of the burnt-offering... The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: the priest shall burn wood upon it each morning, each morning ... A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out." (verses 1, 4, 6)

Three times in six verses there is reference to the fire burning on the altar and not going out. What is this fire that must not be extinguished?

Green's translation of the Sefat Emet, the Torah commentary of the hasidic Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger, gives us a glimpse into the various meanings of this fire--among them, the life force within each of us, the fear of God, the Torah which gives light, the light of redemption and hope.

Commenting on these verses in Tzav, the Sefat Emet wrote: "In the soul of every Jew there lies a hidden point that is aflame with love of God, a fire that cannot be put out." But the human longing to worship the Creator must be renewed each day, as we read: "The priest shall burn wood upon it each morning, each morning."

The fire is always there, and yet the struggle must take place each day to overcome that which might smother it--that which distracts us, or distances us, or turns us away from love and worship, from offering service with the fullness of our hearts.

On the verse "A fire must continually be lit on the altar" (esh tamid tukad al ha-mizbei'akh), Rashi notes that the term "tamid" ("continual" or "always") is the same term used to describe the "ner tamid," the "eternal light" that burned in the sanctuary. Since the destruction of the Temple, the ner tamid in our own synagogues serves as a reminder of the need for continual service and the fact of God's continual presence.

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Gilah Langner

Gilah Langner is a consultant and mother living in Washington, DC. She is co-editor of Kerem: Creative Explorations in Judaism.