Lighting the Fire, or Putting It Out?
We live in a secular age. Religion is seen as irrelevant at best, and dangerous at worst. Most of us are affected by this, even synagogue regulars, even – dare I say it – rabbis! When we have decisions to make, our choices are usually based on secular, not religious, criteria. How much will it cost? Who will it benefit? Economics is in the driving seat. Questions of right and wrong may take a back seat. Issues of the service of God are hardly raised at all.
In this milieu, Judaism is reduced to ethnicity and nationalism, the Torah to a history or anthropology textbook, the mitzvot to interesting, but dated and ultimately useless, folkways.
It is time to reclaim Judaism as a spiritual path.
Parashat Tzav would seem an unlikely place to start. It continues the theme of last week’s portion, Vayikra – how to offer the animal-sacrifices. It is filled with priests going about their (to us) grisly duties, in an institution we would rather not see again – thank you very much. Tzav is an exercise in irrelevance, or so it would seem.
But look closer. I actually like Tzav, not because of its inspiring subject matter and uplifting spiritual message (not!), but because of some of the uplifting messages our mystics have derived from it. Take a look at chapter 6, verse 6:
‘The fire shall always burn on the altar; it shall not be put out.’
The Zohar, the classic text of Kabbalah, the Jewish mystical tradition, appeared in the late 13th century in Spain. It is not one work, but an anthology of texts of different origins. One of those subsidiary texts is entitled Ra‘ya Mehemna (‘The Faithful Shepherd’ – meaning, Moses). This is what it has to say about our verse:
‘The fire shall always burn on the altar’ – This is the Torah, of which it is said: ‘Is My word not like fire?, says the Eternal’ (Jeremiah 23:29).
‘It shall not be put out’ – it is certain that a transgression cannot put out the Torah, but a transgression can put out a mitzvah. Those who commit a transgression put out a mitzvah, for it is a lamp, and they are putting out their own lamp in their own body, for it is said ‘the lamp of the Eternal is the human soul’ (Proverbs 20:27). When it is put out, the body is left in darkness.
Zohar (Ra‘ya Mehemna), III, 28b.
The Torah, i.e. Judaism, is eternal, says the Zohar. Somehow, it will go on, no matter what we do. We cannot extinguish its light. But when we fail to observe a mitzvah, or commit a transgression, we extinguish the light of that mitzvah. And more than that, we may be extinguishing the light of our own souls. Our neglect of the mitzvot, both ritual and moral, threatens our souls as much as they threaten the practice of Judaism. The mitzvot, whether traditionally or progressively understood, are a spiritual discipline, as powerful as any that may be found in other faiths. They serve to remind us that we live, not in a secular world, but in God’s world, a world full of divinity, if we could but recognise it.
Of course, Judaism will go on without us, but its light would be confined to museums, dusty old tomes, and stultified, inward-looking communities. Its light would still burn, but who would see it? Who would live their lives by it?
The five books of Moses are not Judaism. But they are the spark which ignited, and continues to ignite, the fire of Judaism. And it is around that fire that we Jews have always found our light and our warmth. And sparks of that fire inspired, and continue to inspire, us, and light the fire within our own souls, that our bodies may not be left in darkness.
Rabbi Larry Tabick
Shir Hayim/Hampstead Reform Jewish Community
Previously published 2012