Your Shul at the Jersey Shore

Shabbat Parshat Tzav 5779

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The Eternal Fire

Adapted from Rabbi Braun’s sermon in 5775

 Last week while learning with someone in the shul I came across a beautiful idea in a place where I did not necessarily expect it.

This morning we read two mitzvoth, one positive and one negative which are as they say two sides of the same coin. In chapter 6 verse 5 we read;

ה) וְהָאֵ֨שׁ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ תּֽוּקַד־בּוֹ֙ לֹ֣א תִכְבֶּ֔ה וּבִעֵ֨ר עָלֶ֧יהָ הַכֹּהֵ֛ן עֵצִ֖ים בַּבֹּ֣קֶר בַּבֹּ֑קֶר וְעָרַ֤ךְ עָלֶ֙יהָ֙ הָֽעֹלָ֔ה וְהִקְטִ֥יר עָלֶ֖יהָ חֶלְבֵ֥י


  1. And the fire upon the altar shall be burning in it; it shall not be put out; and the priest shall burn wood on it every morning, and lay the burnt offering in order upon it; and he shall burn on it the fat of the peace offerings.

In the next verse we read:

(ו) אֵ֗שׁ תָּמִ֛יד תּוּקַ֥ד עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ לֹ֥א תִכְבֶּֽה: ס

  1. The fire shall be burning always upon the altar; it shall never go out.

Why should that be? Why don’t we light it when we need it? And why do we need a positive and negative commandment to teach us the same thing? Is it really that important?

The Chizkuni suggests that this is simply “honor to heaven that his pot never extinguishes.” While I am not exactly sure what that means, it is clearly God directed – one more thing done in the temple to make sure we properly respect the place etc.

He does however point out something fascinating which I did not consider. When I think of the temple I usually think of the structure in Jerusalem. The torah command is actually referring to the mishkan in the dessert which traveled and they had to keep it lit while traveling! That is a neat trick!

Another possibility is that this is an actual part of the temple service.

The Sefer Hachinuch, the book I was learning points out that this can’t just be – keep it lit for when you want to offer a sacrifice because then it would not be its own mitzvah, it would simply be an ancillary to the mitzvah of sacrifice.

Recanati suggests that this lit fire dispels all of the powers of the accuser as there is a prize or power coming from the altar at all times. Kabbalistically this fire itself is a kind of sacrifice with power against whomever.

The Sefer Hachinuch offers a more rational explanation. He suggests that some items in the temple are there to convey an image or to teach us a lesson. The temple is this sense is not only a place for atonement and forgiveness but also a place containing symbols that teach the profound truths of Judaism to the people and the world. Hirsch is a very big proponent of this approach.

What does that fire represent?

Argues the Chinuch- fire is one of the four elements within man, and maybe the most important as it provides the energy that powers us.

That eternal fire on the altar teaches us that we must use all of our energies in the service of God. Our fire must always be burning for God!

That alone is a very nice idea. But he is not finished.

He continues – maybe if you use the energy/fire correctly you and specifically the “fire element within you” will be blessed. There is almost a reciprocal idea. You use your energies for God and in return God will bless your energy and the power they provide you.

He learns this from another question regarding the fire on the altar. The Talmud suggests that fire from heaven descends and consumes each sacrifice. If that is the case, then why do we need a fire at all? A good question.

He suggests that in order to have the fire descend you must initiate it with fire below. It is a similar type of reciprocal idea as before. If you want to be blessed in a certain area you must work at that area and do so for the sake of heaven.

I think that this has real import for our davening. To daven for something without working towards it is like putting an animal on the altar and waiting for the fire to descend. It does not work, you have to light the fire first.

If you would like parnassah, you can’t simply daven that God give you money, you have to try and earn it.

If you would like Israel to be safe, you can’t only daven for it, you have to do your part whether that be fighting in the army, or Aipac or something else.

And you have to do those things for the right purpose, ie work to support a family and send your children to yeshiva and buy kosher food.

Working on behalf of Israel is by definition for the right reasons.

That is a lot do and a lot to read into the mitzvah but is offers a much more meaningful approach to prayer and bringing God’s blessing to the world!

And if it is true it is important enough to warrant a positive and negative Mitzvah!