By Rabbi Jeremy Litton
The parasha of Tzav begins with discussing the sacrifices. Specifically, the burnt offering — the first sacrifice of the day. The verse states in Leviticus 6:5 “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning bo. It shall not be extinguished. Every morning the priest shall feed wood to it [the altar], lay out the burnt offering on it and turn the fat parts of the offering into smoke.”
The Hebrew word bo can be translated as “on it.” Thus, the verse would read “The fire on the altar shall burn .” However, this would render the word bo superfluous — we already know that the verse is referring to the fire on the altar because the beginning of the verse tells us as much.
The Chatam Sofer, Rabbi Moshe Sofer, who served as the Rabbi of Pressburg (modern-day Slovakia) in the 18th century, expounded on this verse. He notes that the Hebrew word bo can also be translated as “in him.” The verse would then read: “The fire on the altar shall burn in him.” The Chatam Sofer explains that, on a deeper level, the verse is referring to a heavenly fire that burns within each and every one of us.
This is the sacred part of our souls. When the verse lists the priests’ responsibilities vis-à-vis the altar (i.e., “the priest should feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it…”), it is telling us that the spiritual leaders — specifically, the rabbis — are charged with making use of the holy part of their souls to teach Torah and model exemplary behavior when dealing with others.
In this sense, the Chatam Sofer says that every person has the potential to be a priest. This is not a matter of birth, but rather a matter of tapping into our souls — specifically, the heavenly fire which G-d continuously allows to burn within all of us. Furthermore, this helps explains the prohibition we find in the verse which implores us not to let the fire in us extinguish (i.e., “It shall be kept burning… it shall not be extinguished.”). In other words, every single day, we have the capacity to listen to the truth that Hashem puts in all of our hearts, which burns like a fire, or to extinguish it with rationalizations.
The story of Purim demonstrates a similar case. Queen Esther almost didn’t listen to this fire when she originally was asked to approach King Ahasuerus on behalf of the Jewish people. However, Mordechai was standing nearby, dressed in sackcloth, and convinced Esther to play her crucial role in Jewish history. As the verse in Leviticus references, Mordechai did not allow Esther’s fire to become extinguished. He humbly rekindled her inner flame.
Noteworthy: Notice that the naming of the Megillah was after Esther and not Mordechai, which teaches us an important lesson — that it is never too late to listen to that holy part of ourselves and do right by others and by ourselves. Although Esther was originally hesitant in approaching the king she eventually did so, and the story of Purim is remembered in her name. There are times where one may feel, because they originally started off on the wrong foot, an entire pursuit should be abandoned and that their internal flame has been extinguished. The story of Esther teaches us that this mindset couldn’t be further from the truth. Each person always has access to that internal flame and it is never too later for it to be rekindled, and it is specifically this effort that creates notable people in our history like Queen Esther. May we all merit to have our internal lights shine bright and continue to be a light upon the nations.
Rabbi Jeremy Litton is director of Jewish Life and Learning at the Ann & Nate Levine Academy.