וְהָאֵ֨שׁ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ תּֽוּקַד־בּוֹ֙ לֹ֣א תִכְבֶּ֔ה וּבִעֵ֨ר עָלֶ֧יהָ הַכֹּהֵ֛ן עֵצִ֖ים בַּבֹּ֣קֶר בַּבֹּ֑קֶר וְעָרַ֤ךְ עָלֶ֙יהָ֙ הָֽעֹלָ֔ה וְהִקְטִ֥יר עָלֶ֖יהָ חֶלְבֵ֥י הַשְּׁלָמִֽים׃
5 The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being.
אֵ֗שׁ תָּמִ֛יד תּוּקַ֥ד עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ לֹ֥א תִכְבֶֽה׃
6 A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.
There is no Temple, no altar. Hasn’t been one for 1,949 years. Those ritualistic trappings were modified, adapted, reconstructed, reshaped, and have slowly morphed into parts of the rabbinic model of Jewish worship as it is practiced today and has been for much of those 1,949 years.
However, before I talk about modern interpretations, let’s examine a basic issue with these commandments in their context. What happened to the fire upon the altar while the Israelites were on the move rather than encamped for a while?
Scholars do like to remark about the redundancy in verse 6. If it is a perpetual (tamid) fire, then of course it would not go out. Why, if the fire goes out, then technically two commandments have been violated – one, to have an eternal fire on the altar, and the second that it (the flame) should not go out. So clearly, keeping the fire on the altar burning AT ALL TIMES seems to a pretty clear requirement.
The majority of scholars suggest that the law only applied when the altar was stationary, and in later times, when it was a fixed location in the Temple. Not all of them, however. Chizkuni (Hezekiah ben Manoah, a 13th century French rabbi) for example, suggests that the fire was kept lit and was covered by a metal dome while being transported. Nice try, Chizkuni, but depriving the fire of oxygen by covering it with a dome probably wouldn’t have worked so well, not to mention the difficulty in carrying a hot fire for long distances. Others commentators have hinted at a Divine solution – that the flame was kept going by G”d. (Many commentators have suggested that the flame itself was initially lit by G”d, so this wasn’t much of a stretch beyond that.)
I felt it was necessary to discuss this aspect of this because it impacts how we might understand these commandments in a modern context, in the absence of an altar.
Prayer has taken the place of sacrifices. Instead of bulls, we give the offering of our lips. What is it that takes the place of the eternal altar fire and consumes our words and makes them akin to a pleasant odor for G”d? At first glance, it would seem that we have obviated the need for this now missing step. Our words rise directly up to G”d as words, which G”d can hear, and understand. That was just as much the case for our ancestors. There were sacrifices, and words to accompany them. It is likely true that, over time, more and more words were added to the rituals around the sacrifices. Some of those words were the precursors of the prayers we still pray today. Nevertheless, some of the words we pray today must be prayers specifically intended to take the place of the physical sacrifices, n’est ce pas? Shouldn’t those prayers, those words “never go out?” Shouldn’t they be t’filot tamid, d’varim tamid – eternal prayers, eternal words-always present twenty-four/seven?
Matter is neither created or destroyed in our scientific understanding of this universe. Thus when sacrifices were consumed on the altar in ancient times, their mass was converted to other things: heat, smoke, liquids, ash, and the molecules and chemical compounds which we perceive as smells or odors. Fire is the agent which effected the change in the forms of matter that were once living animals. What can do the same to our replacement prayers/words? What takes words, breaks them down, and changes them into other things?
Prayers uttered are just that – prayers uttered. If the utterance is merely the keva, the fixed text, then what is there to be broken down and re-arranged? Aha, but there is something there. Baruch she’amar v’hayah ha-olam. Blessed be the One who spoke and brought the universe into existence. Thus, just the mere words we offer up to G”d can be useful to G”d. G”d might use them to create new universes, or G”d might need them to repair those one. We don’t know.
You didn’t expect that, did you? An embrace of the simple keva, the fixed prayer, uttered pro forma? Now, to be honest, there’s little doubt in my mind that prayer uttered with kavanah is preferred. Nevertheless, I have always believed that the mere recitation of the keva is valid prayer, and serves a function. There are times and places when we human might be incapable of summoning up more that a rote utterance of the keva.
Things are never simple in theology. Just the other day, I asked a group of sixth and seventh grade students about prayer, and its value. They all basically agreed that prayer isn’t something that G”d needs, necessarily. Prayer serves the needs of humans – serves the needs of those who utter them, and those who hear them being uttered. G”d has no need of prayers. (Now, that, in and of itself, is a simplistic notion that, when one examines it more closely, it doesn’t hold up as well as it might seem. Our relationship with G”d is, after all, covenantal. There’s that controversial statement by a 20th century scholar “If you are my witnesses, then I am G”d, but if you are not my witnesses, then I am not G”d.” But that’s deeper than the rabbit hole I want to go today, so we’ll save that for another time.
Given that, it is important that we understand that sometimes the keva is enough, and, theoretically, the keva just might be the replacement for the aish tamid, becoming the aforementioned t’filot tamid. Wow, I never expected to write that when I started this musing. I have to let that bounce around in my head for a while – the notion of the keva being the replacement for the perpetual flame on the altar. The words of the prayers are always there for use to use to lift our thoughts, or sacrifices to G”d.
Now I’m conflicted, When I started working through this musing, I wanted to reach the conclusion that it was kavanah, the intent behind the prayer, that is the modern replacement for the aish hakodesh, the eternal fire on the altar. I see now the basic flaw in that argument. Kavanah is not eternal, though perhaps we should always strive for our prayers to have some element of kavanah in addition to the keva. In fact, sometimes the kavanah is all there is, and it can be enough. Think of the classic story of the “Boy With the Flute.” He doesn’t know the words, but G”d hears his prayers. Perhaps, the youth’s prayers were the most meaningful of all.
Kavanah indeed helps lift our prayers, and is perhaps the catalyst that turns our mere words into the pleasing odors and offerings that G”d asks of us. This viewpoint, however, requires us to perceive the kavanah as superior to the keva, and we’ve already seen how this may not be so. So I’m scraping a lot of what I’ve already written and rethinking this musing.
Keeping our inner fires lit is not always the easiest task, and we must learn to forgive ourselves if we let our inner flames go out. Why set ourselves up for sinning by letting the fire on our altars go out? Why not consider that the replacement for the aish tamid starts with the keva itself. It’s is always there. Oh, we may fiddle around with it, re-arrange it, re-interpret it, gender-neutralize it, excise troubling parts and replace them with words that better reflect modern knowledge and reality, and all that jazz. The essence however, remains the same. Kavanah is perhaps an extra catalyst that makes our prayers smell even more pleasing to G”d than they already are, but the keva alone provides the aish hakodesh upon the altar. When we add ourselves saying the words of the keva, we are placing our sacrifices onto the fire and seeing it converted to heat, smoke, liquids, ash, and the molecules and chemical compounds that make odors pleasing to G”d.
I will always endeavor to pray with intent. Kavanah matters: kavanah enhances, kavanah sweetens, kavanah fattens. Kavanah is the MSG, the umami spice that takes the keva and raises it up a notch. Nevertheless, I am comforted in knowing that I truly believe that the keva itself can be enough – it is always the eternal flame burning on the altar upon which I can offer up my prayers.
©2019 by Adrian A. Durlester
Other Musings on this Parasha:
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5778 – After You, G”d
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5777 – Payback: An Excerpt From the Diary of Moses (Updated)
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5775 – Two Way Street (Revised)
Tzav/Shabbat Zachor 5774 – Does G”d Need a Shrink?
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5773 – The Doorway to Return
Tzav/Shabbat Hagadol 5772 – Not Passive
Tzav (Purim) 5771 – A Purim Ditty
Tzav 5769 – Payback: An Excerpt From the Diary of Moses
Tzav 5768 – Jeremiah’s solution (Updated from 5761)
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5767-Redux 5762-Irrelevant Relavancies
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5766 – Dysfunction Junction
Tzav 5765 (updated 5760)-Of IHOPs, Ordination and Shabbat
Tzav/Shabbat HaGadol 5764-Two Way Street
Tzav 5763 – Zot Torahteinu?
Tzav 5761/5759-Jeremiah’s Solution