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Watch the 2018 High Holy Day sermons!

Kehill Israel Rabbi Emeritus
Steven Carr Reuben, Ph.D.
rabbireuben@ourKI.org

 

Click here to read Rabbi Reuben's new book A Year with Mordecai Kaplan: Wisdom on the Weekly Torah Portion

Tsav – Firelight

 

Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

“A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” - Leviticus 6:6

 

 

                                                                         P’shat Explanation

In biblical times, one of the priests’ most important roles was to tend the fire on the altar.  As the opening of this parasha stipulates: “The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning while the fire on the altar is kept going on it.”

The priests offered many physical sacrifices on behalf of the people. Fire was a requirement of every offering, regardless of its intent—for thanksgiving, gratitude, repentance, or other purpose. The burning itself was both practical and spiritually symbolic—a source concurrently of heat and transformation. 

Following this commandment to keep perpetual fires burning on the altar, the priests were given instructions concerning the “ritual” associated with each offering. However, the word used for “ritual” in this passage is actually the Hebrew word “torah,” which has always signified much more than “ritual.” The Talmud, Menahot 11a, explains: “This is to teach that in our day, the study of Torah takes the place of bringing animal offerings.” 

Our biblical ancestors viewed fire as a symbol of the light of God as reflected in the soul of every human being. Once the sacrificial system of worship disappeared from Jewish life, the rabbinical sages decreed that offering prayers was the equivalent of offering sacrifices. The fires of the altar became spiritual symbols—the eternal flames eminent in our modern houses of worship.

 

                                                              D’rashKaplan’s Insight

“A beautiful soul is an image of God, as a fine canvas is an image of a landscape.” – Mordecai M. Kaplan

Above the memorial wall in my synagogue is an inscription from Proverbs 20:27, “The soul of every human being is the light of God.” Kaplan’s teaching, “A beautiful soul is an image of God,” reflects this same ancient Jewish idea that the flames of the altar—in our own day, the Eternal Lights of every synagogue—are constant reminders that our very souls are reflections of God’s divine light. 

Perhaps that is why he also wrote, “The basic principle of theology in a new key is that to believe in God we have to believe in man.” Kaplan understood that the ancient fires of the sacrificial altar which the priests kept lit on behalf of the people have evolved into the inner flames burning in the hearts and souls of contemporary Jews of every denomination and inclination. Kaplan saw God not as an external “Being” that exists somewhere outside the human experience, but rather as the spark of divinity glowing in every beautiful human soul.  When we are truly there for other people, when we reach out to lift up those who are struggling to find their own divinity in the midst of personal traumas, we keep God’s flame alive within ourselves. 

 

                                                         D’rash – A Personal Reflection

                                                         Fires Without and Fires Within

Fire is a potent and multifaceted divine gift. It can be a source of warmth on a cold winter night, nourishment and sustenance when used to cook food we need for life itself, or a malevolent power wiping out forests and entire cities. Its power can destroy lives or save them. Symbolically it can fuel rage against others or one’s passionate dedication to a higher life purpose. 

One evening, as I was leading a monthly “Men in Transition” group,  my cell phone rang. I was in the midst of an intense conversation and didn’t recognize the number so I ignored the call. Then the same unknown number rang again. Then it rang again, and again, and again. By the fifth time, a tingle up my spine (and the other men saying, “Aren’t you going to answer that already?”) told me I had to answer the call. 

It was my wife with a borrowed cell phone, calling from the street in front of our condo shouting, “Oh, my God you have to come home right now, our condo is on fire.”

Fifteen minutes later I was standing in the midst of blackened walls and ceiling, gazing in a kind of stupor at the smoke-filled rooms and soot-damaged clothing, furniture, books, art, piano, and everything else in our once beautiful home. Shocked and bewildered, I was praying I could hold it all together and not fall apart in front of my wife and the assembled fire fighters when the fire chief gently put his hand on my shoulder and said, “You know, you can’t sleep here tonight.” 

The fire had broken out on our patio. My wife, watching television in the living room, had no idea that part of our home was being consumed until our sliding glass doors literally exploded from the heat. Running into the study, she saw flames shooting up the walls, burning up our curtains as if they were crepe paper. She herself was nearly overcome by the black smoke pouring off the walls, floor, and ceiling. Even in her fear and panic, coughing from the smoke, she managed to find a phone, call 911, and while still barefoot in a nightgown, grab a coat and run out the front door into the street. Thankfully, the fire department quickly arrived and quenched the fire before it destroyed the entire structure as well as seven surrounding condos. It would take another eleven months until we could return to a rebuilt home, with every single item we owned either replaced or cleaned by fire, soot, and smoke specialists. 

 Since moving back into our home, Didi and I have adopted a new ritual of sitting together each morning on the newly rebuilt patio where the fire once began, looking out at the beauty of trees and canyon below, and literally offering daily prayers of gratitude for the blessings that continue to fill our lives. Despite—in fact, because—of Didi’s panic, now indelibly scorched into her memory, we have come to ritualize the aftermath of fire as a sacred reminder: our own spiritual challenge to appreciate the lives we have every day. 

 

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Sun, April 5 2020 11 Nisan 5780