Tzav: Keep the Altar Fire Burning

The last Jewish temple was razed in the year 70 C.E., almost two thousand years ago, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. So what use do we have, today, for an instruction manual for priests officiating at the altar?

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”) tells priests what to do with the grain offering and four types of animal offerings (or sacrifices) brought to the altar at the front of the sanctuary.  These instructions ares certainly of historic interest. But do they matter to our own psycho-spiritual lives?

For the past two thousand years, Torah commentary has answered yes—by finding deeper meanings embedded in the practical instructions for the priests. One example is the Torah’s insistence that the fire on the altar must burn through the night and never go out.

Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the Teaching of the olah: It is the olah that [stays] on the hearth, on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire in the altar must be kept burning. (Leviticus/Vayikra 6:2)

olah = ascending, going up; that which ascends; an animal offering completely burned on the altar and thus turned entirely into smoke that ascends to God

And  you shall keep the fire on the altar burning, you shall not let it go out; and the priest shall kindle wood on it each morning, and he shall arrange the olah on it and cause the fat of the shelamim to ascend on it.  A continual fire must be kept burning on the altar; you may not let it go out. (Leviticus 6:5-6)

shelamim = offerings of peace and wholeness; animals offered to express thanks or to fulfill a vow, and divided into portions to be burned into smoke for God, portions for priests to eat, and portions for the donors and their guests to eat

The olah was offered twice a day, morning and evening. Other offerings were burned on the altar during the day, but at night the sanctuary was closed to everyone but the priests, and no new offerings were added to the fire. For the other kinds of animal offerings, including shelamim, the priests cut up the animal and reserved some pieces for eating, but burned the choice fatty parts on the altar. The fatty pieces burned up quickly, but the olah was the whole skinned animal, so it burned slowly.

One interpretation of the commandment to keep the altar fire going all night is simply that the burning of the olah must be completed, no matter how long it takes. And who would want to deprive God of even a whiff of the smoke?  (See my blog post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)

But the ancient Israelites must have appreciated the symbolic value of a fire that must never go out as much as we do today. In next week’s Torah portion, Shemini, Aaron and his sons inaugurate the sanctuary’s altar with various offerings, lighting the wood themselves. But then a fire comes straight out from God and consumes every animal and animal part smoldering on the altar in one glorious rush. From then on, the fire that burns on the altar has a direct line of transmission—or ignition—from that divine fire. As Rabbi Elie Munk pointed out in the early 20th century, “Fire is an allusion to the Divine Word, the Torah.”  The word of the Torah must never be extinguished.

The fire on the altar is both divine and man-made, rekindled daily by the priests. Thus it also represents our passionate desire for God, which we must never extinguish.

Rabbis in the Talmud tractate Yoma deduce that all the fire used for holy purposes in the sanctuary is taken from the continual fire on the altar, including the fire used to kindle the incense altar, to burn coals in the censer on Yom Kippur, and to light the seven lamps of the golden menorah. Naturally a fire started by God would be the most holy fire to use. But Rabbi Munk compares the fire on the outer altar, used for animal offerings (i.e. sacrifices) to “the altar of duty” on which we should sacrifice our egotism. Only if we tend the fire of that altar will we be able to kindle the fire of passion for God that brings us exaltation.

Other commentary points out that although the fire on the altar must never go out altogether, it burns low during the night, and in the morning a priest kindles fresh wood from it. The late 19th-century Hassidic rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger wrote that the rekindling in the morning means that every day a new light comes to those who serve God.  Our spirits burn low at night, that is, when our soul are distracted by darkness and evil. But when we remove the ashes from the previous day’s sacrifices, we are removing the waste in our lives, and that uplifts us so that we receive new light from God.

About 100 years later, in 1998, Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank zt”l wrote the following double translation of Leviticus 6:6. (The first sentence is a literal translation; the second interprets it at a psycho-spiritual level.)

This is the law of the elevation offering, the elevation offering on the flames on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire of the altar shall be kept aflame on it.

This is the teaching which enables you to transcend. Transcend the ‘small’ by moving toward whatever enflames the passion in your heart even during times of illusion and conventional life-issues, leading towards the time of enlightenment. Let the parts of the Torah which seem brightly lit to your heart blaze and shine and fire up those parts of your soul that are ignitable.

Both Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger and Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank of Seattle compared the nights in this Torah verse to the times when we are distracted and deluded. I believe these times of darkness  are frequent for everyone; it is so easy to get caught up in the obsessions of our society, so hard to keep out minds on a higher purpose in life. But if we stick to a practice of offering ourselves to the divine at regular intervals—perhaps every morning and evening, like the olah—then we keep the fire from going out altogether. Another way to keep the fire from going out during the dark times, according to Wolfe-Blank, is to keep paying attention to the parts of the Torah that light up our hearts.

Then after every dark night comes a morning, and by the grace of God we see beauty and light again. We recall our own souls, and the fire is rekindled—the fire of desire and enlightenment and glory, the fire that is both a gift from God, and our gift to God.

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