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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The word "tamid" calls to mind the well-known verse from Psalms that also proclaims God's presence. This verse is inscribed on the ark in many shuls: Shiviti Adonai le-negdi tamid, "I have set the Lord before me always." Traditionally, this is taken to mean that one should keep God in mind when one prays--and indeed, at all times--so that one's prayers, acts, and words are intentional and righteous.

But in a plainer sense, setting someone (or some One) before us implies an image that we see in our mind's eye. We know that we are each made in God's image. As Art Green has written, in some basic way, "this seems to mean that the human face--every human face--is a copy or reflection of the face of God." Is it possible to keep that Adonai in our mind's eye all the time? An Adonai Who encompasses the faces of every living human being?

Not Just People We Know

And not just the faces of those whom we know, but especially the faces of people whom we do not normally keep in front of us--the faces of people starving in Africa; of the twenty-seven million people enslaved or held in debt bondage in the Sudan, Mauritania, India, Haiti, and elsewhere; of children drugged and pressed into service as soldiers in Sierra Leone; of families whose lives are destroyed by earthquakes and hurricanes.

The faces of those who are tortured in hidden prisons, mistreated and murdered by police and security forces in Latin America. The faces of those who languish year after year in American jails for ridiculously light drug crimes. The faces of both Palestinians and Israelis, caught up in a cycle of violence and historical injustices. The faces of the poor, the ill, the hungry, the malnourished, in virtually every country on Earth.

Can we keep their faces in front of us at all times? This is where "tamid" poses such a challenge. The challenge is not to turn away, not to give up out of hopelessness or frustration, not to pretend that our affluent lives can properly be lived in a vacuum away from the rest of the world.

This is the challenge of Tzav--to keep the fire burning continually. To open our worship and prayer practices to the anguish of the world. To keep these faces of humanity, these aspects of God's image in front of us, always.

A few follow-up resources:

American Jewish World Service:
Amnesty International:
Mazon: A Jewish Response to Hunger:
The American Anti-Slavery Group:

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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.