This portion of Torah does not begin with And God said to Moses”. Rather we read in 6:2 “Command” (Tzav). God does not mince words here. This is a command to the priests regarding the proper rules surrounding sacrifices. The instructions, even regarding what to wear, are precise.The fire on the altar must be tended so that it does not go out. “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar (mizbeach), not to go out”(lo tich’veh) (6:6)
We have seen, symbolic interpretations of the altar as also our own self, as manifestation of the Sacred. Indeed, many of the texts we teach in the session we do on Health and Wellness begin with texts that cite the example of the body as a representation of all that is holy, thus the need to care for it. There are some commentaries that see this command to represent the need to keep the “fire” of devotion of and in prayer constantly burning. Twerski quotes Rabbi Shneur Zalman, inanother reading of the Hebrew, as seeing the word lo, for the English “no” in the context of saying that we must be ever mindful to extinguish the “no” or the negative from our lives.
However, as I looked at this passage and this verse, another thought came to me and that is the idea of keeping the “fire” of life continually burning within each of us. I think this is a challenge for many people, especially as we age, and, for many who live longer than they ever expected. Thus a question that is becoming more real becomes “how do we keep that flame of life burning within each of us”? How do we keep within our souls the “fire” and passion of living, even when that becomes more and more of a challenge. Extended life spans, the gradual crush of illness all combine, for some, to seemingly crush that passion for life. Instead of living, people merely “exist”. Longevity has made this challenge ever more real. Society is just now, in slow steps, waking up to this emerging reality; and as medical science continues to push the life span boundary, it is will remain part of our social concerns.
Judaism, as we know, provides a sense of vision for this. It is a civilization that teaches us to always look ahead, that despite the challenges and realities of our physical world, there is always something new to learn and experience. We are always vehicles for mizvot. Many of us know people of any age who keep the fire of life burning; they do not let illness stand int he way of growth and experiencing life. We know others who, when a challenge impacts them, retreat into themselves and stop living. Perhaps this portion is another reminder that we are commanded to keep that fire of life and living burning at all times and in all circumstances. In that way, we honor our history and celebrate the gratitude of our life.
Rabbi Richard F. Address