Weekly D’var: Tzav – Rabbi Ariella Rosen, Hillel UofT

In conversations with students, from the casual passing check-in to the more focused one-to-one encounter, I hear a lot about how they are doing. One word has emerged frequently recently: burnout. Between academic pressure, health precautions, and world events, not to mention anything else going on in someone’s personal life, many of us feel like we’ve burnt through all of our fuel, with little left to give. It feels sometimes like we’ve collectively lost our spark.

A lesson from Parashat Tzav has given me a new way of understanding this feeling, and a hopeful way to emerge from it. Early on, God issues the following instruction to the people:

A perpetual fire (esh tamid) shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. (Leviticus 6:6)
אֵ֗שׁ תָּמִ֛יד תּוּקַ֥ד עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ לֹ֥א תִכְבֶּֽה

It makes sense that God would want the people to maintain a fire – after all, the sacrificial system is now an around-the-clock operation, and there should not be any delays in place to making these offerings. Yet, for a people traveling through the wilderness, how is this possible? It’s not exactly easy to keep an altar flame alight while on the move.

A midrash (rabbinic interpretation of these verses) offers an answer:

Not to go out- [means that] even when journeying, the flame should not go out. What did they do? They covered it with a pot (to protect it), according to Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Simeon said, they removed the ashes from it even while traveling (offering a prooftext from Numbers 4:13).”
– Bamidbar Rabbah 4:17

In other words, it was so important that the fire stay burning, that they took care to maintain it even while on the road, a simple act of care that had an outsized impact.

By keeping those flames alive, the people were ready at any moment to connect with God, and to offer gratitude or atonement, and express awe. I don’t think it’s a stretch to connect the flames of the altar with the metaphorical fires that burn within each of us.

Sometimes we glow from the awe of an experience, sometimes we light up with excitement and appreciation, sometimes we burn with shame or ignite in anger. And sometimes, especially these days, it might feel like our fires have gone out, whether from exhaustion, stress, or despair. The world we live in does not seem to be making it easy for us to keep our fires fed.

But burnout does not mean that the fire has burned away. It may be that we have intuitively learned that we sometimes need to cover those flames to keep them safe, to perform routine maintenance until the conditions are right to burn strong again. And through our connections with each other, we can perform this simple but monumental care for each other. I see it happening at Hillel all the time.

We may no longer have altar-fire, but we do have inner sparks, and they are an esh tamid, a perpetual fire. They aren’t going anywhere.