“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).”
With these words the Bible describes, in this week's Torah portion (Tzav), the instruction to continuously maintain a flame on the altar which stood in the Tabernacle (a mobile sanctuary the Jewish people built in the desert to house the Divine presence), and then later in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. For this purpose, the priest was required to place new firewood on the altar each morning, in order to feed a flame which must never go out.
As the biblical commentators and the Jewish mystics acutely grasped, each mitzvah (commandment) in the Hebrew Bible contained, in addition to its concrete and simple meaning, many symbolisms relating to the inner psyche of the human being. This mitzvah is no exception, and it captures a simple but profound truth about our daily patterns.
“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.
But how? True, there are times when our hearts and souls are inspired and aflame; but often we feel numb and apathetic. How do we maintain the flame in our own inner altar?
There is only one way: “The Priest shall kindle wood upon it morning after morning.” Each and every morning 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.
What is the “wood” that is capable of feeding the soul’s flames each morning? Study, meditation, charity and prayer. They are the morning encounters with the living G-d that allow the fire of the soul to hold on to something and take root into the human psyche.
A delicious piece of cheesecake, reading and answering your e-mail, listening to the news -- they don’t do the trick of turning on your soul, your inner depth. They lack the properties to bring out the flame 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. Good Morning Soul must precede Good Morning America. Then you’re set for the day, because as 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.
Dear Yosef Y. Jacobson,
Thank you for your e-mail.
What is the fire that lights your soul each morning?
I think of the 10,000,000,000,000 (ten trillion) cells that are my body (that are your body) and think how each one takes such good care of all its neighbors.
My skin cells keep the outside out and the inside in.
My heart cells keep contracting to help the blood cells distribute oxygen to all the other cells.
My muscle cells help me move to food and work.
My neurons coordinate my muscle cells.
My bones provide a rigid framework so the muscle cells can work.
My cells seem to take care of each other like Golde takes care of Tevye in Fiddler on the roof. Golde takes such good care of Tevye that she concludes she loves Tevye.
My cells are as good to each other as Golde is good to Tevye.
My cells must love each other.
My cells must love my neighbor as thyself.
How did they come to do that?
The Ruler of the Universe taught them that.
How must the Ruler of the Universe want us to treat each other?
My thanks to Shmuel Levin, a writer and editor in Pittsburgh, for his editorial assistance.