Parashat Tzav

By Susan Elkodsi

Parashat Tzav continues the instructions for sacrifices, and lays out the role of the kohanim (priests), in this case – Aaron and his sons. It could easily be seen as an instruction manual for the kohanim, complete with a priestly guide to “dressing for success,” offering specific instructions on what the priest must wear depending on the task he is performing. Preceding the commandments about the sacrifices themselves is a commandment regarding the fire on the altar which was required to burn perpetually, an aish tamid. The offering was to burn all night, and the priest was required to feed the fire every morning. This parashah offers explicit detail about certain tasks, but doesn’t appear to mention what happens to the fire overnight.

In order to continue burning, a fire must be fed and tended. When my husband’s boy scout troop had a Shabbat campout, the fire was arranged in such a way that it would burn from the middle out. As each piece of wood burned to the end, it would light the next, and the scouts took turns guarding the fire while the others slept.

Perhaps this was part of the priestly responsibility. In Parashat Tetzaveh we were introduced to a similar concept, the ner tamid, which the priest would light each evening to burn until the morning. In addition to its stated uses, fire is used throughout the Bible to demonstrate God’s presence, and these fires may be a way of keeping God’s presence in the mishkan even in the presumed absence of the priest.

The Etz Chaim Chumash offers a commentary about this perpetual fire, suggesting that the final word of Chapter 6, verse 2; “bo,” can be translated as “within him,” as opposed to “on it” which is how both the JPS translation has it. The commentary (which isn’t credited to any individual, but which derives from the kabbalistic and then Chassidic tradition – see Sefat Emet, for example) suggests that the fire on the altar paralleled the priest’s enthusiasm for his sacred work. It also mentions the congregation’s obligation to recognize and support that enthusiasm.

This is an interesting twist. God commands Aaron and his sons to perform their duties, but we are left to speculate about their attitude or state of mind in carrying them out . . . were they done with a particular kavannah, or was everyone simply going through the motions?

If it’s true that all things were present at creation, waiting for the appropriate time to be brought forth, then it follows that God foresaw a time when burnt offerings and other physical sacrifices would be replaced by prayer; when the kohanim and the ones bringing the sacrifices would become today’s clergy and congregation. As Rashi points out, the identifying word of our parashah tzav – intends to convey a sense of “encouragement immediately and for all generations.”

The esh tamid – perpetual fire is within each of us, and like a physical fire, if not properly cared for it can either rage out of control or be reduced to ashes. How do we tend and feed our fire… how do we maintain enthusiasm for our work, for our studies, and for the other roles we lead in our lives? Parashat Tzav reminds us that we must keep God within our own personal mishkan while we share that fire of enthusiasm with others, and share in theirs.

Shabbat Shalom

Susan Elkodsi is a Gesher student at The Academy for Jewish Religion