The next Olympics will take place in Tokyo in the summer of 2020. A few months before the July 24 opening ceremony, an Olympic torch will be kindled in Olympia, Greece, and transported to and then through Japan by a team of runners. By the time it reaches the Olympic stadium, it will have traveled over multiple continents, to all 27 prefectural capitals in Japan and probably through some pretty harsh weather conditions.
The longest torch relay in history covered some 85,000 miles from Olympia to Beijing in 2008. The torch has been carried on camel and in a canoe, and by underwater divers in the Great Barrier Reef.
Every two years (for both the Summer and Winter Games), I anxiously await that exhilarating moment when the torch enters the Olympic stadium, with the world’s collective attention focused on its triumphant flame. I’ve often wondered how the fire remains lit over the miles and the months. How is the precious flame protected from wind, rain and snow? Does it ever go out?
In this week’s parashah, the Israelites are instructed: “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priests shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it … A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out” (Leviticus 6:5-6).
Amidst descriptions of sacrifices and details about the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests, we find this commandment to keep the fire burning on the altar continually.
Unlike “fire” today, which can remain lit with minimal exertion (a pilot light on a stove, the flame app on our smartphones, or the electric lights in our homes, schools and offices), this perpetual fire necessitated continued attention and effort, much like the Olympic torch.
Why, then, the commandment, repeated twice here, to keep the fire perpetually lit on the altar?
On the surface (or p’shat level), the continuous fire was needed to burn the sacrifices. But on a deeper level, that ever-present flame represents so much more. It was through an inextinguishable fire that God first appeared to Moses and accompanied and protected the Israelites through the darkness of night in the desert. It is through fire that we mark holy time on Shabbat and holidays, and it is with fire that we celebrate the divine gifts of love and memory for yahrzeits and Yizkor.
Tikkunei Zohar 74a, a Kabbalistic commentary composed in medieval Spain, offers an interpretation of Leviticus 6:5-6. “An elder stood up from behind a wall and said, Rebbe, my teacher, come and light candles. On that it is said, ‘an everlasting fire shall be kept burning on the altar, it should not be extinguished.’ To light the eternal flame, this is surely the light of the divine, the light that shines within the soul of every person. Come and light it.”
The question for us, then, is how will we “come and light it?” Where is our passion ignited in our lives? How do the fires burn in our own souls?
Nowadays there is so much that needs our attention in this world, so much that is broken that calls us to act, so many dark places desperate for light and truth and righteousness and compassion.
And just as the priests were to keep the fire perpetually lit on the altar, so too must we keep the light of holiness alive today.
The stakes are high. It was not long ago when mobs carrying tiki torches marched through the streets of Charlottesville, Virginia, chanting“Jews will not replace us.” Yes, the flames of hatred are smoldering today, but the Torah calls us to drown them with fires of goodness and love.
And nobody did that better than Al Vorspan, who died in February at 95. One of Judaism’s greatest champions for justice, he served as director of the Reform movement’s Commission on Social Action for nearly 40 years and was a driving force behind the Religious Action Center.
In his eulogy, Rabbi David Stern, president of the Central Conference of American Rabbis, eloquently and lovingly described Al. “He brought Jeremiah to the capitol and Isaiah to the jail cell in St. Augustine … and he did it with … those expressive hands and with his bald head shining like a beacon for social justice.”
Each of us is called to light the divine fire that burns within every soul. How will we shine?