Parashat Tzav (March 27, 2015)
by Rabbi Heather Miller
This week is a very special Shabbat–there are four special Shabbatot per year but this one is called Shabbat HaGadol meaning the Great Shabbat. There are many reasons why this is considered a great Shabbat. One understanding is that because it is right before Passover. It is the last Shabbat before Passover. Passover falls on Shabbat this year. And what’s great about it is that we are anticipating the great miracle that is the Exodus from Egypt, from this narrow place to a place of freedom. We contemplate that and we think about ways we can make this Shabbat exceptionally great.
I’m going to share with you three words of Torah tonight on this week’s Torah portion. which is known as Tzav. And in this portion we get the description of the esh tamid, the Eternal Fire that burned in the Temple. In this week’s Torah portion we learn that the fire on the altar shall be kept burning. It shall not go out. The priest shall burn wood upon it each morning and each morning, the Torah tells us: “esh tamid tukad al hamizbeach lo tichabed. The perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar not to go out.”
First we think about secular society and in secular society we think about that fire that fuels our passion. We think about that fire that might light our way in the world. Tonight as we contemplate this fire we can look at our Ner Tamid here in the ark- the solar powered eternal flame- we can think about the ways that our own Judaism can be a light in our lives, it can be a light in the world, we can also think about how that light can symbolize the Creator’s presence in our world. I have a friend who once drashed on that point. She said that you know how at Halloween, how the houses that you can go into are the ones with the porch light on because it means that someone is home? The Ner Tamid can remind us that somebody is home (hopefully). We can think about that as a symbol of our Creator’s presence in the world. And it can also be a light that brings us back to our own passion. We can be reminded, once a week it is nice to remind ourselves, that what is it that we are passionate about? What is our purpose in the world? How do we get back to that place in our lives and how can we make for the next week a way of being in the world that is unique?
This Ner Tamid can be a symbol for the unique light we bring into the world. What if this Ner Tamid was, instead of a symbol fo the uniqueness that we each bring into the world, what if it was a symbol for something else? What if it was a symbol for love? How is the Ner Tamid like a symbol for love? We think of a fire and you need to continually stoke the flames– you need to continually engage in this relationship if it has to do with love. There is always this tentativeness, this wondering, if there is that reciprocal nature to relationships. Any kind of relationship– whether it is with a lover or it it is a relationship with the Eternal, with God. How do we know that God is on the other side of that relationship?
So the Sefat Emet in the 19th century, he was a hasidic thinker wrote that, “In the soul of every Jew, there lies a hidden point that is aflame with a love of God. A fire that cannot be put out.” There is no question for him.
But for so many of us there can be questions about – is it really that unextinguishable.
The 1980s Bangles song called the Eternal Flame, asks the existential question:
“Am I only dreaming? Or is this burning an Eternal Flame?”
How do we know? As we approach the next part of the service, known as the love sandwich, we think about the Ahavat Olam– we think about this prayer about God showing God’s love for us by giving us the Torah and two prayers later, the Ve’ahavta, a prayer about us showing our love back for God by studying the Torah. Within our liturgy it is a two way street. We can contemplate, “what would it be like if that really is the case?” Maybe it already is the case. How can we experience that reciprocal nature of the relationship? What is God giving to us everyday? Big miracles like the splitting of the sea or the arrival of Elijah? Or is it as small as everyday miracles like the breathing we do? And similarly, how do we reciprocate that love to God? How do we show it everyday? How did we show it this week?
This prayer for healing can be said for someone who is undergoing some difficulty with their physical state or their mental, or emotional or spiritual state. Many of us have feelings like we need to get through something. We are in that narrow place, that Egypt, that Mitzrayim. We need that bit of freedom. We imagine what that might feel like, what that might look like.
My great-grandfather, Julius Kirshenbaum, fled Europe- he fled Russia during the pogroms and he spoke about another type of eternal flame. He spoke about the flame that is the will to live amidst all obstacles. He wrote in his autobiography, “Where does this magical will to live come from? Where does it burn? In which of the human body does it bud and blossom so strongly that it can conquer death in so many shapes? And why doesn’t it go out?” So whatever struggle you may be facing, physical or otherwise, whatever struggle your loved ones may be facing, may we stoke this fire of this will to live, this will to carry on, this will to be united in community and to acknowledge one another’s flame within.
As we always do here at BCC, we recite the mourner’s kaddish for those in the transgender community. Tonight, especially we include in our mourning each and every transperson who has died this year- either through murder or via the uptick this year of reported transpeople who have taken their own lives- this week, Blake Brockington, just 18 years old, and last week, Ash Haffner, just 16 years old, both advocates for Transgender equality, and instrumental in observing the Transgender Day of Remembrance in their community of Charlotte, North Carolina.
After winning the Homecoming King crown last year, Blake experienced severe backlash, most notably over the internet. His message back to people defined his life and his passionate work: “I’m still a person, and trans people are still people. Our bodies just don’t match what’s in our heads. We need support, not people looking down at us or degrading us or overlooking us. We are still human.”
Tonight we mourn his death as well as others who have died this week or month.