Let Me Stand Next to Your Fire

William Strunk was a professor at Cornell University befuddled by the prose of his students — wordy, sloppy, repetitive and pointless. In 1919, Strunk privately published a tiny volume that contained little more than eight elementary rules of usage, 10 basic principles of composition and 49 words and expressions that were commonly misused. Nearly 40 years later, his student, E.B. White, expanded the 43-page manuscript, recognized as one of the most influential books in English in the 20th Century.
The professor would not have known what to do with this sentence that begins our weekly Torah portion, Tzav. If this was a test, the student would have been given an F.
Command Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the burnt offering: That is the burnt offering which burns on the altar all night until morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn with it. [Leviticus.6:2]
First, Strunk would have muttered, the sentence should have stopped with “law of the burnt offering.” The Torah already told us this law in Exodus. Second, you don’t need the phrase “burns all night until the morning.” It’s an axiom of nature that morning follows the night. Third, what is this “the fire of the altar shall burn with it”? How else will the burnt offering burn? As Strunk put it, “Omit needless words.”
It gets better. The Torah moves on to explain how the priests would wear special garments to remove the ashes from the altar. Wait a minute! What happened to telling us the “law of the burnt offering?”
No answer. Instead, the Torah takes us back to the burning.
And the fire on the altar shall burn on it; it shall not go out. The kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning, and upon it, he shall arrange the burnt offering and cause the fats of the peace offerings to [go up in] smoke upon it. A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out. [Leviticus.6:5-6]
Style notwithstanding, there is one unmistakable theme here — fire. The blaze must keep burning no matter what. Indeed, there were three fires in the outside altar of the Mishkan. The main fire burned the offerings. A second was meant to kindle the Menorah inside the Tabernacle. And a third fire was used…for nothing.
That explains why the Torah begins the portion with “Command,” a word that denotes immediate action. Can you imagine how much wood is needed to keep even a small fire burning 24/7? And this in the desert where trees are worth more than money. Where will the priests find the wood? How will they handle the rain and wind that might extinguish the fire? Where’s the budget? And if we get the money, can we add some more for an outside contractor to clean the altar every day?
Thus, the word “Command” — just do it.
Not everybody was committed to just doing it. During the Second Temple Issachar was appointed the High Priest. Like most of his predecessors, Issachar, from the village of Barkai, was wealthy and bought the position from the quisling king and Roman governors. He wore fine clothes and comported himself as a VIP. But his job as High Priest involved handling the offerings — particularly on Yom Kippur. He hated the idea of getting his manicured hands dirty with blood, so he performed the Temple service with silk gloves.
The sages teach: Four shrieks came from the [Temple] courtyard…And there was an additional one, “Get out of here Issachar from Barkai village, who honors himself and desecrates the holy offerings from heaven… [Talmud Bavli. Pesachim. 57a]
For nearly 2,000 years, we have been without the Temple. But there has been a substitute for the priests. They are the rabbis and teachers responsible for the Jewish community — whether in Israel or the Diaspora. Their silence these days amid the worst times since the Holocaust has been deafening. Some are too busy with their professions to know there’s something seriously wrong. Others think there’s no point ministering to a people who don’t want to listen. Many are scared to say what they really think. And not a few are so committed to the status quo that they’ll stick with it until literally the end.
Like the priests, our leadership must maintain the fire. They have no choice. They either lead or go. What is the alternative: the government, that which comes and goes and does nothing in between. Is it the so-called judicial system? Is it the military and police — who really did a bang-up job on Oct. 7?
The only ones who can keep the fire within us are those who believe in that fire — those who are devoted to the eternal G-d, His people and the Torah. The people are willing to pay for the wood, carry it to the altar and stand guard all day and all night. But there are some things that just the successors to the priests can do. If they do their job with the fire within them, they will fuel the faith in all our hearts.
And if they don’t, the rabbis, teachers and lay leaders, just like the high priests of yore, can be replaced. There were more than 300 high priests during the 420 years of the Second Temple. Vaudeville had longer acts.
As we heard Mordechai tell Esther in the Megillah read in synagogue this week: Young lady, you didn’t become queen of an empire merely to add to your shoe collection.
For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this? [Esther 4:12]
Welcome to Purim 2024.
About the Author
Steve Rodan has been a journalist for some 40 years and worked for major media outlets in Israel, Europe and the United States. For 18 years, he directed Middle East Newsline, an online daily news service that focused on defense, security and energy. Along with Elly Sinclair, he has just released his first book: In Jewish Blood: The Zionist Alliance With Germany, 1933-1963 and available on Amazon.
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