Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of pre-State Palestine, wrote: “One is forbidden to extinguish the thirst for God which burns in every heart. We are told that a person who extinguishes an ember on the altar has violated the prohibition of ‘it will never be put out.’ (Babylonian Talmud, Zevahim 91) This is all the more true for one who extinguishes an ember of the spiritual fire in the spiritual altar—the Jewish heart.”
In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, we read that the fire that must be kept burning on the sacrificial altar. “The fire will burn forever upon the altar; it will never be put out.” (Leviticus 6:6)
Have you ever tended to a campfire or even a fire in your fireplace? They require continuous care. Wood must often be added to fuel the fire. Logs must frequently be rearranged in order to keep the coals glowing. Fall asleep beside the fire for an hour and you might wake up next to smoldering embers. Fall asleep for several hours and you will awaken to see only white ash.
Imagine therefore the care the sacrificial fire required. There must have been several priests whose job it was to tend to this fire. They must have worked in shifts around the clock. There must have been others as well who had to collect the wood. To keep a fire going every minute of every hour of every day that was hot enough to turn the sacrificial animals completely into smoke was no easy task and required enormous effort. Yet in ancient times this was the priests’ chosen task. This was their holy duty. And so I also imagine that they did even this menial and demanding labor with love and devotion. They believed that the world depended on the sacrifices and altar fires they tended.
Today there are no priests to care for our spiritual fires. This job falls on each of us. Still the command is the same. “It will never be put out.” Tending these fires cannot be left to rabbis or cantors, Hebrew School teachers, or b’nai mitzvah tutors. Our spiritual fires are in our own hands. We must tend to them. We must care for them. We must nurture them each and every minute, each and every hour, each and every day.
What Rabbi Kook said generations ago holds true today. Each of our Jewish hearts is in our own hands. The fire must forever burn upon the altar, on the spiritual altar that is the Jewish heart.
We may not be able to solve all the world’s problems at Shabbat Services when we sing Lecha Dodi, but gathered together we might re-ignite our spiritual fires. And with those fires burning we may gain strength to go forth and heal our world. And the world does depend on keeping these fires burning for the world does need our healing strength!