Keep That Fire Burning

Parashat Tsav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36

By Monica Roush, Beth Messiah Congregation, Montgomery Village, MD


Have you ever heard the phrase “on fire for the Lord”?  The metaphor of fire has long been equated with passion, and in my mind this is a Christian saying, not a Jewish one.

I was surprised to find out that the phrase actually stems from this week’s parasha!

The fire on the altar shall remain aflame on it, it shall not be extinguished; and the Priest shall kindle wood upon it morning after morning. . . . A constant fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall never go out. (Leviticus 6:5-6)

Yosef Jacobson has this to say:

“A constant fire shall burn upon the altar” – the altar, in the writings of Jewish mysticism, is symbolic of the human heart, the space in each of us most capable of sacrifice. The heart, however, needs a continuous fire burning in it. For the human heart to live deeply, for it to feel empathy and experience the depth of life and love, it needs to be on fire, passionate, aflame. (Yosef Y. Jacobson,“a-constant-fire-shall-burn-upon-the-altar”/)

The Modern Hebrew word for enthusiasm is hitlahavut, being inflamed or impassioned, or . . . “being on fire.” Abraham Joshua Heschel says that hitlahavut is

The experience of moments during which the soul is ablaze with an insatiate craving for God, when the memory of all other interests and the fear of misery and persecution are forgotten. In such instances a man seeks to give himself to God and delights in his being a gift of God. (A. Heschel, “Being Aflame or Having Fire Within,” in A Passion for Truth, New York: Jewish Lights Pub., 2008, p. 333.)

There is a challenge here, if you’re willing to take it. Life has a way of bogging us down with the mundane, with self-doubts, struggles, with whatever it can.  It’s easy to lose focus and forget to continue to “kindle the fire.”

So how do we maintain and continue to foster our own inner altar? Jacobson goes on to say:

There is only one way: “The Priest shall kindle wood upon it morning after morning”.  Each and every day we must place “wood” on our altar, in order to feed its potential flame. Fire cannot exist in a vacuum; the fire in our heart and soul, too, requires “wood” to sustain it . . . it needs fuel.

What is the wood or fuel that is capable of feeding the soul’s flames each day? Study, meditation, charity and prayer. These are daily encounters with the living G-d that allow the fire of the soul to hold on to something and to take root in the human psyche.

A delicious piece of cheesecake, reading and answering your e-mail, listening to the news don’t do the trick of turning on your soul or your inner depth. They lack the properties to stoke the flames of the soul. In the morning, before you do anything else, you need to engage in labor that will let the flame of your soul emerge.

What’s the key to a good marriage, or any relationship for that matter? Communication.  It’s vital to any healthy relationship. This same principle applies to our relationship with HaShem. We must make it a priority to meet with him.

According to the Baal Shem Tov, one’s relationship to God is like a romance. One must be fully and wholeheartedly invested. And as Heschel said: “Faith is fire, not sediment,” meaning it is action. Faith requires active investment. When given that investment it becomes, like fire, necessarily infectious.

According to Jacobson,

Goethe said, a man sees in the world what he carries in his heart. If your heart is aflame, your world that day will be on fire. And you must place the wood on your altar each morning, no exceptions.

Consistency is the key to a meaningful and inspiring day. There are no shortcuts to inspiration; everything comes with a price. The only job where you start at the top is digging a hole. But life is about climbing mountains, not digging holes. And to climb a mountain, you must begin at the bottom.

We have the opportunity to make a difference for good, to bring good in the world, but our course is one of action. We must work at having hitlahavut, at being on fire.

May these words from our Master be readily found near our hearts:

You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:14-16)

Stephanie Escalnate