This Shabbat, we celebrate the Shabbat before Pesach known as Shabbat Hagadol (the Great Shabbat), on which our Torah reading continues through the book of Leviticus, the book dedicated to outlining the Jewish code of holiness. As we know, the entire book of Exodus which was read for so many weeks prior and which we will recall again as we sit at our Seder tables next week, was devoted to the establishment of the covenant between our ancestors and God. As we make our way through the book of Vayikra, we find the details of how that covenant will manifest through the human/divine interaction.
As we open this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Tzav, we read of the many different sacrifices - individual and collective- covering different times, occasions, and intentions. Each sacrifice, according to the Torah, was to be offered by the Priests in specific ways and with specific detailed procedures, providing ‘language’ for communication and connection with God that would ultimately allow humans to draw closer and to cleave to God.
One by one, individuals and the communities would bring their sacrifices to the Temple - Burnt offerings, meal offerings, sin offerings, well-being offerings, Thanksgiving offerings, all to be identified and placed on the altar of sacrifice. Yet, in describing these sacrificial rites, the Torah records that the fire was not to be extinguished, but rather: “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” (Leviticus 6:6)
The Jerusalem Talmud Yoma 4:6 expounds on this lesson of the Torah saying: “It (the fire) is never to be put out – even in your travels. When they traveled (in the desert) what did they do? They would cover the flame with a large pot?” Moreover, Maimonides presents this as a positive Torah commandment to keep a fire burning on the altar.
Why is it that the Torah commands that the fire never be extinguished, and that Talmud sees it as so important that it applied even during times when the altar may have been portable? Would we not think that the fire could be re-lit at each new location or as needed for each new sacrifice? Moreover, in a time when the Temple no longer stands, how are we to fulfill the mitzvah and what are we to take out of its message?
As I thought about these questions, I found myself drawn back to the image of our Pesach table to be set in a few short days and to the Shabbat table we set this week. Our table is like our altar. Our ritual hand washing and the practice of pouring salt on the bread as we make the blessing of Hamotzi are but two ways that the tradition hints at the connection between the meal at our table and the sacrificial altar of old. In this context, then, the hint of our verse “a perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar” reminds us that the fire of the Jewish people forever lives at our Shabbat and holiday table and it is our job to keep it burning.
Our table can merely be the place where we eat – where we take care of the basic physical and physiological needs. But, when we occupy our time at the table with the customs and traditions of our heritage, when we introduce words of Torah, and invite communal celebration, we make our table something much bigger - we add sparks to the ageless and everlasting fire of the Jewish people. Like our ancestors, we offer up a piece of ourselves to Divine worship and create at our table an altar for reaching out to and giving a piece of ourselves to the Holy One. Our blessings, our study, and our mitzvot become our language for communication and connection, drawing us closer to ourselves, to each other, and ultimately to God. It is in this way that we pass on the beauty and tradition of our people from one generation to another helping to create a fire that is ‘not to go out’.
As Passover approaches and we find ourselves focused on food – getting rid of hametz, figuring out our Seder menus, navigating the dietary needs of matzah – I pray that we each be blessed to also find ways to make our holiday table an altar for service to God. May each of us find the time and space to think about the people with whom we will share the place at the table, the Seder rituals and blessings we will recite, and the stories and customs that will shape the memories for years to come. And, through it all, may we feel the fire of the Jewish people burning inside our hearts in ways that drive us to reach the Holy of Holies.
Shabbat Shalom and Hag Kasher V’sameach.