The sin of idolatry or disloyalty to God has, for obvious reasons, always been a source of friction between God and the children of Israel. This idea serves as the point of departure for a religiously significant midrash on the opening verse of Parshat Tzav which teaches the protocol for the burnt offering (korban olah) in the Temple: “And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘Charge Aharon and his sons, saying, this is the teaching of the burnt offering. It is the very burnt offering over its flame on the altar all night till morning, and the fire of the altar shall be kept burning on in it.’” (Lev. 6:1-2)
The underlying question that the midrash asks is how is it that God could remain loyal to those who cannot maintain a modicum of loyalty to Him. Its answer is presented through the interpretation of a verse from Proverbs: “Hatred stirs up strife but love covers up all faults.” (Proverbs 10:12) God’s love is so all abiding that it supersedes Israel’s transgressions. This love is symbolized by the end of the opening verse: “[the] fire of the altar shall be kept burning on it.” (See Leviticus Rabbah 6:1) In other words, nothing can quench God’s love for His subjects. This idea, in itself, is remarkable in that it provides the grounds for the possibility for people to repent or change because the relationship between God and His people is so strong that the relationship can never be broken.
Anyone who has studied the teachings of the Sfat Emet, Rabbi Yehuda Aryeh Lieb Alter (18th-19th century Poland), the second Gerer Rebbe, is familiar with his ingenious “rereading” of classical sources to provide them with a new spin. In his reading of this midrash, it is not God’s abiding love which “does the trick”; rather, in each individual there is a divine point or spark which embodies a person’s enduring love which forever burns and cannot be extinguished. The enthusiasm or love for God, expressed in this “point”, manifests an eternal connection between God and the person. It is intrinsic to the person, making sin only an external impediment which cannot erase the power of this love. Ultimately, the “love covers up all faults” and makes it possible for a person to renew his or her relationship with God. (Sfat Emet Leviticus 5644 Or Etzion ed. pp. 35-36)
This psychological reinterpretation of fire on the Temple’s altar is intrinsic to Hasidic theology. The altar and its irrepressible flame remain lit in the hearts of every Jew. When we stray, the flame remains as a means for rekindling our true selves – the self which yearns to restore the relationship with God.
Whether one chooses the original intension of the midrash or the Sfat Emet’s reinvention, the root to closeness with God is always open.