In this week’s portion we learn that the altar fire had to be constantly maintained. I imagine that this was an enormously difficult task for the priests. The olah sacrifice in particular had to be burned up entirely on the altar. That is why its root meaning comes from the word to go up. That is a very powerful fire indeed.
Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook saw in this altar fire an analogy to the Jewish heart. Just like this ancient fire had to be kept burning, so too must we keep the Jewish flame burning in our hearts. But today there are no priests to tend to this fire. With the destruction of the Temple and the resulting democratization of Judaism this task fell to each of us. It is each of our responsibilities. Each of us must nurture our own spiritual fire. I can’t do this for you. But just because I can’t do this for you, does not mean that you have to do this by yourself.
An analogy to sports. My two favorite sports are swimming and biking. I seem to be drawn to the pursuit of going faster and farther. My new goal, by the way, is open water swims. Many people mistakenly think that swimming and biking are solitary sports. They are in the sense that you have to swim yourself and pedal for yourself. But there is also a community of people who support each other.
When you are doing laps, you cheer each other on during breaks. When you are biking the sense of community is even stronger. I have met people on the trail when mountain biking. You talk for a while and then ride together, and pull each other along. When road biking you pull each other along even more.
On pro teams there are strategies that are all about the team succeeding and helping the lead rider win the race. If there is a crosswind, someone rides to block the wind. If a headwind another rides in front so the lead rider can follow him. Another is charged with attacking the mountains to tire the opposing teams. Even competitors help each other out. A competitor might hold your bike so that you can take off your jacket (or even so that you can go to the bathroom while riding.)
This year’s Tour deFrance controversy was actually not so much about doping or Lance Armstrong’s poor showing, but that Cantador passed Schleck when his bike suffered mechanical problems. This was breaking with biking etiquette and its strong notion of community. You are not supposed to take advantage of another rider’s bike failure.
I have to say the most fun thing to do when road biking is drafting. When you draft and ride within inches of another’s rear wheel, you use 30-40% less energy! You still have to pedal yourself. And this is exactly my point, and why I think I love biking and swimming. You have to do the hard work yourself. You can only succeed if you work hard yourself. Others can help you and even support you, but they can’t do the job for you.
Most people seem to like team sports where each person has a specialty. This one is a keeper, the other a striker. This one is a shooting guard, another the power forward. You can be on a winning team but not do any of the hard work. This is how people start to think about life in general. I believe that this is the wrong model, especially when thinking about our Jewish lives. It suggests that Judaism or being Jewishly literate is a specialty. It suggests that it is the same as it was in the Bible, in the days of the priest.
That is not how it is anymore. There are no Jewish specialists. All of us are supposed to be our own Jewish specialists. We each have to tend to our own fires. We each have to nurture our own Jewish souls. Of course you should not start off by riding 100 miles (unless you are on my JCB biking email list).
So here is where you can start nurturing your Jewish souls. Read a Jewish book. Say a blessing. Soon you will be able to thank God for the blooming of flowers. Use the words of our tradition to thank God for spring. Do a Jewish act. Light candles. Eat hamentashen (food is good for the soul too). Encourage more people to join us for services—and attend more frequently. Here we pray together, but separately. We should note that no one can sing like our cantor, but she is still only the prayer leader. She does not pray for you. Our prayers join hers.
Give tzedakah. Do gemilut hasadim. Here are a few of those acts of lovingkindness. Visit the sick. Comfort the mourners. Dance with bride and groom. And promise me this. Please don’t ever think that doing Jewish things is just about what we are doing here. It is so much more than prayer. It is much more than our synagogue. Our Judaism has to be carried with us from here to every place we visit and touch.
Back to riding. I can of course ride in front of you and you can even draft off me. I won’t mind. It does not make my pedaling any harder, only yours easier. Besides I will enjoy the company. Hopefully you will as well. But you have to, you must, do the pedaling yourself. You have to do the hard work yourself, each and every minute, of each and every hour, of each and every day.