Tzav in the time of COVID-19

"Fire," by Ian Barbour, via under Creative Commons License
“Fire,” by Ian Barbour, via under Creative Commons License

A message of hope for our times “hidden in plain sight” in this week’s Torah portion in Leviticus Chapter 6, Verse 6.  The entire reading, verses 1-11, recalls the instructions that G-D gave to Moses to give to his brother Aaron and Aaron’s sons on how to prepare and do the sacrifices in the Temple.  These were burnt sacrifices, so, after preparation, the sacrifices needed to be placed on the fire.

Verse Six teaches us, “A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out.” [ translation]  If sacrifices are not ongoing, if sacrifices are not continuous, then why shall the fire for the sacrifices be continuous? Just as I pointed out in my commentary for Pekude, March 21, 2020, only two weeks ago, sometimes words can sound alike but sometimes the subtle differences make all the difference.    As the late great architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe (born in Germany in 1886 and died in Chicago in 1969 after creating a good portion of Chicago’s architecture and skyline) was fond of saying, as Mies van der Rohe was fond of saying, “G-D is in the details.”

The details in this passage is that the fire that shall not go out is not a fire as our first reaction would think of it.  That distinction is so important that perhaps that is why the Torah gives us that same instruction repeated, in the very same sentence:  The fire shall be continuous, AND the fire shall not go out.

In the Bible’s original Hebrew, the first word in Leviticus 6:6, the word for the fire, in the original, is transliterated as “Aish.”  If the Bible was to have been written with the very specific word for the fire that can burn you and send you to the medicine cabinet, the more specific Hebrew words would have been lahav or lehavah. [].

“Aish” means “fire” in the positive sense of inspiration and passion,[], a burning inspiration and passion.  It is used to describe the passion inside of us that should be continuous and should be for the good.

One of the founders of Chabad Chasidic Judaism, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi (1745-1812), taught, “A little bit of light dispels [or pushes away] a lot of darkness.”  At a time when we need Aish, the fire of passion and inspiration, we are seeing it through gemilut chasadim, acts of loving kindness.  Amidst the negative news of all the suffering, the suffering in so many ways, the suffering of illness, of loneliness, of isolation, of fear and of uncertainty, we see those angels who try to push away a little darkness.  In the last few days, we saw “Sandwiches for Semi’s,” neighbors taking sandwiches to truck stops to keep the necessities of life and the smiles of the truck drivers moving.  And we saw the company that makes the baseball uniforms for both the Philadelphia Phillies and the New York Yankees, the uniforms known as “pinstripes,” transform their factories into making hospital gowns and procedure masks … with the same pinstripes …. to bring necessities that will get us through this, we pray, in both substance and in smiles, to so many.

The gift of those pinstripes came with the gift of humor, more important than ever at this time.  The following is an expert from the Bible/Torah commentary for March 28, 2020, Vayikra (Leviticus 1:1 -5:26), by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, wonderful rabbi, writer, teacher, speaker, and recently retired Chief Rabbi of England:

“Something else has happened. I don’t know if you’ve noticed it … and that is the sheer humour that is going around about what’s happening. I think probably everyone does this. Humour is deeply connected to humanity. But I do think the humour coming out of Jewish communities and out of Israel is quite exceptional. Really very, very funny….

And it solved for me, a problem that I always had. Hakodesh Baruch Hu [another name for G-D] was absolutely insistent that the first Jewish child born was to be called Yitzchak [Isaac], meaning ‘he will laugh’. And until now, I always wondered what on earth Yitzchak had to laugh about. His very birth created a split in the family and led to the dismissal of Yishmael and Hagar. Then came the Binding which was traumatic by its very nature. And then in old age he finds himself deceived by his son Yaakov when he wants to give a blessing of love to his son Eisav.

What on earth did Yitzchak laugh about in his lifetime? And then I suddenly realised this week that this name, this word, wasn’t assigned for him alone, but for the entire future of the Jewish people. Because here we are in the midst of the worst health crisis for a hundred years. And Jews, not only Jews, but especially Jews, have been helping one another laugh. And what we can laugh at, we can survive.

And that, to me, has been very, very beautiful. What we can laugh at does not hold us captive in fear.”

Fortunately, we do not have a monopoly on this.  Like the fire of “Aish” the humor we need now, more than ever, has been a gift to us from many places.  We can even sing about it, turning to the great American singer, songwriter, and musician, Jimmy Buffet.  Buffet ends a song with a refrain, sometimes also attributed to the poet Robert Frost, “If we couldn’t laugh, we would all go insane.”

May we be like Isaac and like Sarah, his mother.  May we be blessed with laughter as we fight the new plague together.


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