Tzav – Burn baby, Burn
Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat preceding Pesach, is notorious for an exceptionally long sermon in the Synagogue. This is one of the two times a year when the rabbi would deliver a long address, and its purpose was to review the laws of Passover and the proper way to conduct the Seder.
Many communities have given up this practice, because we can’t wait so long before eating at the kiddush. Therefore the Shabbat Hagadol talk is deffered to an afternoon lecture in the Synagogue where people can comfortably catch up on sleep, having already filled their bellies with cholent and other Shabbat delights.
In any event, we will proceed with common practice and keep it to a brief remark on the Parsha.
The verse states (Leviticus 6:5-6) “The fire on the Altar shall be kept burning on it and not be extinguished, and the Kohen shall kindle wood upon it each morning; he shall prepare the elevation offering upon it and it shall cause the fats of the peace offering to go up in smoke upon it. A permanent fire shall remain aflame upon the altar, it shall not be extinguished.”
This verse mentions fire and burning several times. The fire on the altar burned through the night and was refueled the next day. It would never go out. As the verse states, there was a constant fire burning on the altar. Rashi cites the Talmud in Yoma 43b stating that there were several fires on the altar, at least three. One was the large pyre dedicated to burning the meat from the offerings. The second was a smaller flame dedicated to the burning of incense and the third was there simply for the purpose of keeping a fire always burning.
Rashi continues with another statement from the Talmud. All fires in the Temple were kindled from that constant flame on the altar. Even the light of the Menora was taken from the flame of the altar.
Every synagogue today has a ner tamid, a constant light shining above the ark. This practice stems from the commandment given here that a fire must always burn upon the altar. Our synagogues have taken the place of the Temple and our prayers are the offerings presented in place of the animals.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments that the constant flame represents the light of the Torah. In the Temple all fires were derived from one source, from the eternal flame on the altar. That fire provided the source for all other flames in the Sanctuary. In our quest for spirituality, for giving meaning to our life’s work, every objective must similarly stem from, and point back to, the same source. The Torah is our eternal fire. It must never go out – we are guaranteed that it will never go out.