In this week’s portion we learn that the altar fire had to be constantly maintained. “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” (Leviticus 6:5-6)
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. This must have been a very powerful fire.
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 on each of us. In that moment nearly 2,000 years ago every Jew was empowered to kindle his or her own fire. There are no more priests. Maintaining our fire is each of our responsibilities. We must each nurture our own spiritual fire.
A fire requires two things to burn: fuel and care. So the first question is what is the fuel that nurtures our spiritual fires? I offer some partial answers.
Books. To live up to the title that we are the people of the book requires reading, it entails learning. We are a literate people that demands perpetual study. We are defined by the books we continue to hold in our hands and I hope, our hearts: the Bible, and in particular the Torah that we read line by line year in and year out, and the Siddur, prayerbook. We discover truths in conversation with our holy books. The Torah for example is not a guide book. We don’t read a verse and say, “Now I know what to do.” How else can we explain the demand that we continue to read about sacrifices we no longer offer and verses talking about turning fat parts into smoke? We argue with the text, we draw out meaning from between the lines.
Prayer. To pray on a regular basis helps to rekindle our spirits. Central to Jewish prayer is the attitude of giving thanks. Gratitude is the Jewish approach to the world. That is the essence of the formulation: “Blessed are You Adonai…” Shouting blessings, even in the face of death, singing psalms, even when the world appears dreary, is how Judaism counsels us to shape our hearts. We spend much of our days working towards goals. We are driven by the desire for gain. Even the most noble of these quests creates an emptiness that spurs us forward. Competition is not bad when it pushes us and motivates us to better ourselves. But on Shabbat we take a breath and say “I have enough. I need nothing more.”
And yet we also believe that it is our sacred responsibility to look at the world and say as well, “What can I do to help? How can I alleviate suffering and pain?”
One last suggestion for fuel. Gemilut hasadim. Judaism teaches that these deeds of lovingkindness, such as visiting the sick, feeding the hungry, burying the dead and even dancing with the bride and groom are demanded of us. We help others first and foremost because they require help. We also do this because our souls are nurtured by these acts. We don’t do this as reminders of how fortunate is our lot, but because Judaism obligates us to look outward. We have no ascetic tradition in which the ideal is to reject the world and live apart from others. Only by looking in the faces of others, and seeing their pain as well as their joy, do we kindle, and rekindle, the Jewish flame in our own hearts. Sometimes it is difficult to do these tasks, but nevertheless we do not shy away from the obligation.
Gemilut hasadim, prayer and Torah are the fuel for our Jewish fires. But fires also require care. When tending a fire, we must first take note if and when more fuel is required. We cannot throw a pile of logs on the fire on occasion and then look away hoping the fire will continue to burn. Sometimes we might even need to rearrange the logs. On some days we might study more than pray. On others we might fill our hearts with more of these sacred, loving deeds. And still on others we might just need to sing a song.
Each of us is different. Each of our flames requires care and nurturing. It is in our hands. I can’t do this for you. I can help. I can teach. I can stand by your side. Fellow members of the community can stand with you. Learning is better done with others. Our songs are at their best when sung together. And it is most certainly easier to perform gemilut hasadim when accompanied by others. The kaddish, for example, is never said alone. The hora cannot be danced by yourself. We always journey together.
Still there are no more priests to tend the fire. Your flame is in your hands.