The fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously; it must not go out. — Leviticus 6:13
The Torah portion for this week is Tzav, which means “command,”from Leviticus 6:1–8:36, and the Haftorah is from Jeremiah 7:21–8:3; 9:22–23.
In this week’s reading, the Torah uncharacteristically repeats itself three times. In the context of giving us the rules regarding sacrifices, the Bible first states in verse 9: “the fire must be kept burning on the altar.” Next, we read in verse 12: “The fire on the altar must be kept burning; it must not go out.” And then, in the very next verse we read: “The fire must be kept burning on the altar continuously; it must not go out.” If the Torah went to such lengths to underscore the importance of keeping the fires of the altar burning, certainly there is a deeper message for us.
The Sages teach that fire symbolizes passion; in this case, passion for God. Perhaps we can understand the directive this way: Even when we are called to make great sacrifices in our lives, we must never let our fire for God become extinguished.
I am reminded of a heart-wrenching letter that was discovered in the rubble of what was once the Warsaw Ghetto and which became a warzone when the Jews there staged a hopeless revolt against the Nazis. The letter was written by a Hasidic Jew and was addressed to God. It read: “Our food and ammunition are gone. They [the Nazis] are systematically destroying every bunker. It is only a matter of time until they reach us. In spite of it all, and as hard as You try to test me, Almighty, I still love You!”
That is keeping the fire burning even as we lie on the altar.
It’s not easy to have faith in times of difficulty. It’s even harder to sustain our love for God when we are suffering. Perhaps this is why Scripture repeats this commandment several times, each time adding to the directive. First we are simply told that the “fire must be kept burning,” perhaps leading us to think that while, in general, the fire must always be burning, on occasion, it’s ok if the fire goes out. However Scripture then adds,“it must not go out.” Still, we might conclude that perhaps in extenuating circumstances — and only for a moment — it’s ok if the fire goes out. Then Scripture adds that the fire must burn “continuously.” The fire must burn at all times and under all circumstances, no matter how difficult they may be.
The same is true for us. As hard as it is, we must continue to burn with passion for God and serve Him no matter what comes our way. We can be inspired by the many people who have done so before us and who continue to do so today. Like them, we must say, “As hard as You try to test me, Almighty, I still love You!”