The Graveyard Shift
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying, 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 6:1-2]
In last week’s Torah portion, G-d commands Moses to educate the Children of Israel about the offerings to the Tabernacle. In this week’s portion, Tzav, or “Command,” the focus is on the priests and their duties to serve the people. Their first assignment is to bring the burnt offering — and do it on time, every time.
The commentators point out that the Torah uses the word “Command” in only two instances related to the Tabernacle. One is with the lighting of the Menorah. The other is with the burnt offering.
What these two commandments have in common is that they are done every morning. Without the offering, called Tamid, or “Constant,” anything brought to the altar is invalid. With the Menorah, the priests must ensure that it is burning at all times. If the flame is extinguished, the oil receptacle must be cleansed, refilled and lit.
These are not simple responsibilities. The burnt offering is brought early in the morning after the priests have been up all night. They were feeding the altar with animals slaughtered earlier that day. By 4 a.m., they’re beat and ready for a snooze.
Shlomo Ephraim ben Aaron Luntschitz, known as the Kli Yakar, lived in the turbulent Europe of the 17th Century, when pogroms marked a government tool to deflect anger toward the kingdom. He composed prayers to commemorate the violence that ravaged the Jewish community of Prague in 1611. Remember “Fiddler on the Roof,” when the constable tells Tevye, “We have received orders that this district is to have a little unofficial demonstration.”
“A pogrom, here?” Tevye asks.
“No,” the constable says excitedly. “Just a little unofficial demonstration; not too serious, just some mischief.”
The Kli Yakar outlines the road to failure. It begins with complacency, concealing inadequacies with such sentences as “It’s good enough for jazz.” or “This is the best we could do with our shortage of staff.”
Now that you’ve justified the abandonment of perfection, you enter a self-fulfilling prophecy. “There’s not much going in here, and I can use a quick snooze. After all, they will be no worse for the wear.”
The mistake is not long in coming, and the burnt offering is ruined. The Kli Yakar uses a harsher word — “cursed.”
Then, there are the philosophers, who rationalize their apathy. Chaim Ibn Attar, known as the Or Hachayim, says these people argue that the Tamid should be dismissed. They reason that the Tamid existed in the desert when the Israelites were constantly on the move. Today, we are settled, so there’s no reason for the dawn offering.
In Judaism, complacency is far worse than failure. It is the resignation that things will go wrong even before they do. It enshrines the status quo. “We’ve always done it this way and nobody’s complained.”
But then the status quo becomes deadly. In Jewish history, there were four Tabernacles. Three of them were short-lived and composed of wooden structures that could easily be disassembled if a new location proved necessary.
The exception was the Tabernacle in Shilo. This structure was made of stone and took on an air of permanency. Indeed, the Tabernacle lasted 369 years or numerous lifetimes. After a while, the Israelites saw Shilo as the unforeseeable future.
But everybody was told this was not to be. The Tabernacle was meant to be transitory. The endgame was the Temple, meant to represent the final venue for the divine spirit. But most of the Jews, including their leaders, forgot this and focused on their daily needs.
Until tragedy struck. The Philistines, already occupying much of the Land of Israel, launched a massive attack and headed for Shilo, burning and looting along the way. They grabbed the Holy Ark, which contained the tablets brought down from Mount Sinai by Moses and burned the stone edifice to the ground.
And suddenly, the status quo had collapsed, leaving the people more demoralized than ever.
That might explain the need for a burnt offering, which is consumed on the altar. Unlike other offerings, no portion of the animal is eaten by the priests or commoners. The commentators say this is because the burnt offering is meant to atone for evil thoughts. With few exceptions, Judaism does not warrant punishment for evil thoughts rather evil deeds. But the Torah recognizes what man often refuses to acknowledge — that evil deeds begin with evil thoughts.
So, by the time the burnt offering is brought to the altar at daybreak, few priests would be immune to the attrition of the graveyard shift. They’re tired, shiftless and seriously considering shirking their duties. Some of them groan because they have to dress for the maintenance of the altar. No, they can’t wear jeans and a sweatshirt. Their uniform consists of a linen tunic and linen trousers, and then the priest can remove the ashes from the altar before refilling the structure with firewood.
G-d sees this and mandates the burnt offering, a way to atone for these thoughts before they turn to deeds. Because when they turn to deeds the holy fire that keeps the altar burning and all of us alive might burn out. And that would be tragic. This warning is important enough that the Torah repeats it in consecutive verses.
A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out. [Leviticus 6:6]