Friday, April 7, 2017

Parashat Tzav and our Eternal Flames

            Shabbat Shalom. I found myself today thinking a lot about the night the U.S. went to war with Iraq. Last night, the U.S. military attacked a Syrian airbase. It differs from the bombs the U.S. has been dropping in Syria for the last two years in that it was an attack on the Syrian government and official military rather than just the Islamic State groups, but as of yet it may still be similar in intention. A single action meant to deter worse that may be coming from the target. As of yet, there’s no evidence that the U.S. is about to engage in another long-term ground incursion. However, the language and sense of tension on social media and among my coworkers feels so similar to 2002-2003 in the lead up to the war on Iraq. I was fairly young and I’m sure there’s a lot I still don’t understand about all that, but I remember the sense of inevitability in the rhetoric that led to the military engagement, and I know that “war is not healthy for children or other living things.” On opening night of my first high school musical, our director gathered us, in costume, to tell us that the U.S. had officially sent in troops. We got on stage anyway and sang our hearts out in songs that caution against violence, songs that mourn the “Empty Chairs at Empty Tables,” that battles leave behind. When I think of the finale of our show, I think about the dangers of war. Of all the civilians lost in any military engagement. Of the economic ruins and governmental mess that often follows such actions. But despite the tragedy and horror that accompanies violence, the show ends on a positive note. One of the verses in the finale, seemingly sung by the ghosts of the poor people of France, slaughtered by their own government, goes: “For the wretched of the Earth, there is a flame that never dies; even the darkest night will end and the sun will rise.”
            The song goes on with more allusions to Biblical references which you might recognize, but this too comes from our holy text, and in fact from this week’s parasha, Parashat Tzav. Several times the Torah tells us about the eternal flame that the priests must tend to. This is, of course, related to the Ner Tamid, the eternal light, which our lamps above the Ark now symbolize, but the word used over and over in this week’s parasha is “aish,” fire or flame. There will be a flame always burning on the altar; it shall never go out. Of course, this fire is not just upon the altar of the ancient Temple, or symbolized in a Ner Tamid lamp. It is inside of us all. It is our passion and our love for Judaism, justice, and each other. It is our spark of Divinity that is inside each person, which we must tend to and keep alive, always.  
            Sometimes, it is hard to feel in touch with this flame. When sad, it may be easier to numb it out. When angry, it may be easier to let the flame of anger burn brighter than the flame of love and holiness. When overjoyed, we may simply forget to harness the joy and maintain a sustainable flame. The Lubavitcher Rebbe says, “There are times when we believe ourselves to be “above it all,” as the spirituality of the moment transports beyond the so-called trivialities of physical life. Conversely, there are times when we feel overwhelmed by those very “trivialities.” Says the Torah: the fire on your internal altar must—and can—be kept burning at all times. No moment in your life is too exalted or too debased to sustain your passion and enthusiasm in the fulfillment of the purpose to which you were created, which is to raise up to G‑d the materials of your everyday existence.”
Rabbi Moshe Alshich, a 16th century Ottoman sage, understands this difficulty. He says, “There is a fire of love for G‑d that burns within every soul. It is the task of the kohen—the spiritual leaders of the generation—to feed and preserve this fire.” As I’ve said before, the role of a rabbi or a community leader is fundamentally different from that of a Kohen. We cannot be intermediaries for your relationship to the Divine as they were. However, I do hope that I can be present for you in whatever way you need to help you keep your own aish tamid burning constantly. To help you feel the spark of your own Divinity, and to see it in others. To ensure that you feel welcome and whole in the Jewish community, and that your maintain that sense of wholeness when you are out in the world engaging with secular or profane elements of life. This flame never dies. It follows you outside these sanctuary walls to work, to school, to war, to peace, to the theatre, to the cafes. It will never go out. Don’t let it ever go out.

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