I am a night person. Always have been and probably always will be. I guess you could say I am accustomed to burning the midnight oil. Perhaps it’s because I get a sudden surge of energy late at night, an adrenalin rush, a second wind.
Whatever the reason, my internal light seems to continue to burn strong into the early hours of the morning. Now, if I could only channel some of that extra energy to help me wake up earlier in the morning.
Parashat Tzav, which is coupled with a special prophetic reading in honor of Shabbat HaGadol — the Shabbat immediately preceding Passover — details the ancient sacrificial rite performed by the priests in the Mishkan (Tabernacle). The Torah teaches: “The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is, burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it … A continuous fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out” (Leviticus 6:2, 6).
The rabbis of our tradition are perplexed by the idea of the “continuous fire — esh tamid.” On the one hand, it makes sense that the burnt offering would remain on the altar until it was finished cooking; and as an offering to God, it also seems reasonable to stoke the embers to ensure that the sacrifice was to God’s liking. But why add that a perpetual flame must burn even when the altar is not necessarily in use?
The Jerusalem Talmud notes that the word “tamid,” or “perpetual,” comes to teach us that the fire must continue to burn even on Shabbat and even if the priests who were the chief officiants in the Tabernacle became unfit to offer sacrifices (Tractate Yoma 4:6). Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg (13th-century Germany) points out that the flame was so important to the Jewish people that it even burned throughout their wanderings in the wilderness, and to protect it they would cover the flame with a large pot while on their journey (I guess they didn’t yet know that fires can’t exist without oxygen). He continues, “It has been the Jewish way throughout the centuries and in all places to create vessels which would preserve the holy fire of Judaism, even in their journeys and their different exiles” (MaHaram on Yoma 4:6).
From these words of the MaHaram of Rothenberg, I glean that not only could the rabbis not find a legitimate reason to extinguish this light, but that the light serves a greater purpose. This eternal flame represents the essence of the Jewish tradition for our ancestors, and for it to go out would mean that our very existence as am Yisrael, a Jewish people, would be in jeopardy.
The great Rav Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Ashkenazi chief rabbi of Israel, takes a more personal approach. Rav Kook suggests that the fire alluded to here is a metaphorical flame that burns within each person, a spiritual fire that is lit within the hearts of every Jew. The idea of the fire being perpetual helps me to appreciate the notion that this fire continues to remain lit within each person throughout every generation. So long as the values and teachings of Judaism continue to guide all that we do, in word, thought and deed, we can preserve our meaningful traditions.
In the coming week, we will begin commemorating the Exodus from Egypt. As a part of telling the narrative at our seder tables, we also are commanded to see ourselves as though we are perpetually leaving Egypt in every generation, in search of freedom. The eternally burning fire serves as a reminder to everyone, the individual and the Jewish people as a whole, as well as to any person or group of people who still experience oppression and subjugation in their lives, that we must fight to never let the light go out.
The esh tamid symbolizes a beacon of hope and strength. Just as it allowed our ancestors to survive even the most difficult of circumstances, may it serve as the same unending reminder for us and for every generation, so that we may one day experience the blessings of freedom and peace.
Rabbi Corey Helfand is the spiritual leader of Conservative Peninsula Sinai Congregation in Foster City. He can be reached at email@example.com.