The opening details of Tzav are strikingly rote. Hashem commands Moshe to give over the daily upkeep of Olah sacrifice: the kohanim are to keep the sacrifice burning from night until the morning, with the fire constantly being kept aflame. Additional details such as the garb they are to where as they should change into their simple linen garb, raise up the ashes from the previous day’s Olah to the side of the altar, remove the linen garments, change into different garments, and then take the ashes outside the camp (Terumat HaDeshen). The fire on the altar must always be burning – it cannot go out. Every morning, the kohanim must kindle it, and on it, the kohanim will bring the Olah and the fat of the Shlamim. Before moving onto the next set of instructions though, the mikrah stresses again that the fire of the altar must be kept aflame, it should not be extinguished.
אֵשׁ, תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ–לֹא תִכְבֶּה
Why repeat the command to keep altar’s fire constantly kindled? That instruction was already mentioned in the previous pasuk. Since there are no extra words in the Torah, this separate statement must be emphasizing something that may have otherwise been overlooked if only mentioned once. According to Rabbi S.M. Hirsch, the constant fire is meant to elicit national and individual reflection – what could the aish tamid symbolize and why explicitly state, “do not extinguish it?”
The fires of the Altar (there were a total of three according to Yoma 45b), were used to kindle all other fires in the Mishkan. The Menorah, the incense Altar, “and even the glowing coals that were taken into the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur”* were all taken from this one source – a source that never went out. The Altar symbolized the trait of tamidut, constancy, of interwoven duty and accomplishment. Without a Temple today, R’ Hirsch suggests that as a nation and as individuals, we consider the qualities of avodat Hamishkan to the avodah of our national and personal missions. The flame on the Altar is what keeps us going and what holds us together. This leads us to the question, what does this fire represent?
Rabbi Moshe Cordovero, the 16th Century Kabbalist, offers insight into what the representation may be. In one of his manuscripts, he mentions that the recitation of Vayikra 6:6 helps ward away disturbing or distracting thoughts. As you may have experienced yourself, thought is something that just kind of flows. Both psychology and literary criticism have a term for this – stream of consciousness. As the coinage suggests, oftentimes, our minds have minds of their own, making it difficult to track where and how one thought led to another. Attempting to focus one’s thoughts on one thing for a few minutes tends to be a nearly impossible task for the untrained and unaware mind, and yet, it is something we live with quite easily. The fact that our thoughts influence other faculties – such as action and emotion – gives them a significant power. Essentially, the one choice of what and how we think can determine the choices we make in all other areas of life.
I don’t know about you, but constantly having choice over my thoughts seems like a hefty job. Keeping track of everything I think? It’d be easier to win a triathlon or break the world record for most hot dogs eaten in one sitting. At least those things are over after a while, but training and choosing thoughts, that can take a lifetime. I’m not (yet) on a level where all my thoughts are constantly connected to G-d, so what steps can I take in the meantime, as I strive for that ideal?
In her book Feel the Fear…and Do it Anyway, Susan Jeffers, PhD, explains how one can learn to achieve happiness even when challenges arise. It starts in the morning: as soon as one wakes up in the morning, he should look at a quote that reminds them of a goal or strength that motivates him. The very next action once he is out of bed is to turn on a song or audio recording that reminds him of the those goals and strengths. As he looks in the mirror, he should recite a few words of affirmation and gratitude, which should be plastered right there on his mirror. Once he’s all done with his morning prep and on his way to work, he should get another playlist of music or speeches/lectures going, so that he is still focused on those motivating thoughts. Dr. Jeffers underlying message is that people do not realize that a strong mindset takes constant effort; negativity is simply a much stronger force, and in order to overcome it, we need to choose to do so every day. It does get easier with time, but the task is never over.
The Anshei Kennest HaGedolah (AKG) knew this long before Feel the Fear..and Do it Anyway. When we look at the meaning of Birchot HaShachar, ideally, they are not recited all at once upon entering Shacharit. Netillat Yadayim can be said right after washing Negel Vasser. Asher Yatzar and Elokai Neshama can be said right after using the bathroom. Once one is dressed, he can say Birkat HaTorah and its subsequent passages of Torah so that his day is truly starting with Talmud Torah. The AKG gave us words to get by in those first minutes of the day, however, there’s room for our own reminders and affirmations. A fire will not continue to burn without continuously being added to, and so to, our minds cannot sustain the grit, gumption and motivation to focus on our mission, responsibility and privilege if we do not deliberately feed them. Additionally, we must never let those encouraging thoughts be extinguished. They may wax and wane at times, but at the very core, our fire will stay lit, and with it, the we will contribute toward our personal and national destiny.
This task will never be easy. It may even be painful at times, but with Tamidut, consistency, we can achieve that oneness of mind, heart and action.