The flame of Judaism is ours to keep alive forever

This week’s Torah Portion is Tzav, the second portion in the Book of Leviticus. The portion starts out with a description of the olah, the burnt offering. What I find interesting in the description of the burnt offering is the commandment from Verse 6 that “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” There are many ways that we can metaphorically understand this commandment. Orot Ha-Kodesh as quoted in Itturei Torah suggests one way of interpreting this commandment:
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.” This is all the more true for one who extinguishes an ember of the spiritual fire in the spiritual altar — the Jewish heart.
The perpetual fire represents our perpetual yearning for God and our constant devotion to the service of God. The way that I look at the perpetual fire is more as a metaphor for Judaism itself. A fire, even a perpetual one, is constantly changing — flickering, flaring, dying down. Further, a perpetual fire requires perpetual feeding; we must constantly add more fuel to the fire or it burns out.
So too does Judaism perpetually change throughout the ages and so too does Judaism require perpetual feeding by our engaging with Torah and our tradition. In this new light of the metaphorical perpetual fire, we can see the offerings described in Tzav as relevant again to our lives, even though the Temple in Jerusalem has been destroyed and there have been no sacrifices offered in almost 2,000 years.
The next offering described is the Mincha or grain offering. Part of this daily offering was meant to be burned completely for God, but the remainder was given to the priests to eat. I imagine that the Mincha offering was a staple in the priestly diet since it was offered daily, and was probably a large portion of the priests’ salary, so to speak. Now I’m not implying that in today’s world, I as a rabbi want to be paid in 5-pound bags of flour. But rather, I would suggest that for those who cannot otherwise feed themselves, we must provide for them daily that they have sufficient food to eat. We provide food for the hungry not just for their sake, but so that we may feed the perpetual fires that keep us close to God.
After the Mincha offering, the Chattat, sin offering, and the Asham, guilt offering, are described. These offerings are described as “most holy” such that they may only be eaten by the “males in the priestly line” (Leviticus 6:22, 7:6) or burned completely to ash and not eaten at all. Clearly, doing teshuvah, repentance, then or now is one of the most holy acts we can engage in. We do teshuvah when we cease our wrong actions, make amends as best we can, and resolve never to act that way again. And with every act of teshuvah, we make the world a better place and draw God closer.
Next comes the sacrifice of well-being, offered for thanksgiving to God or as a free-will offering to God. These offerings are interesting in that a portion goes to God, being completely burned up; a portion goes to the priest making the actual sacrifice; and a portion goes to the donor of the sacrifice. Everyone partakes in this sacrifice, just as we all gather together today to create a holy community. Everyone in our community has a part to play in creating a holy community that gathers together to thank God freely for the gifts God gives us.
God commanded us to keep a perpetual fire burning upon the altar. Today, the flame of Judaism is ours to keep alive. When we engage with our texts and our traditions, we add fuel to the ever-changing flame that is Judaism. When we reinterpret our texts and traditions to fit our modern lives, we add fuel, keeping the fire alive. When we give of ourselves, offering the best of our abilities and resources, we strengthen the community of the Jewish people, we make the world a better place, and we draw nearer to God. May God give us the will to see that the flame burns forever.
Rabbi Ben Sternman is the spiritual leader of Adat Chaverim in Plano.

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