The artwork on this note card was created by 5768 WRJ Art Calendar artist Césan d’Ornellas Levine.
This blog post is adapted from the D'Var Torah offered by Aaron Torop at the Reform Movement's gathering in DC before the March for Our Lives. To learn more about the youth-led Reform Movement mobilization to end gun violence, visit www.NFTY.org/GVP. Photo courtesy of Hector Emanuel.
When the Israelites were racing out of Egypt toward the Sea of Reeds, a pillar of fire accompanied them. This fire, strong and resolute, lit the way and guided the Israelites in their first, uncertain steps toward liberation. This image overwhelms us with the power and force of God. As if the ten plagues were not a strong enough sign of God’s might, God then guides the people with a pillar of fire.
This pillar must have been simultaneously comforting and terrifying to all who witnessed it. Awestruck by the fire, it must have been comforting to have the protection of light amid the darkness, fire to protect them against the Egyptians chasing after them. It must have also instilled fear in everyone near it, fear to be in proximity to that much power, thankful that it is not being unleashed on you, but ever wary that it might.
Contrast that image with a slow-burning, long-lasting fire. When building such a fire, it is important to have a large bed of hot coals, thick wood, focused not on size, but maintaining the heat, a slow, simmering, burn. This type of fire may appear constantly like it is going out, but with a little prodding, comes roaring back to light.
In our Torah portion this week, Parashat Tzav, we kindle a special kind of fire: an aish tamid, a perpetual fire. We read in our text “Aish Tamid Tukad al ha’mizbeach lo Tikhveh - A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. This verse is perplexing, it appears redundant. If it is an eternal fire, of course it won’t go out, and if a fire does not go out, it is perpetual by definition. Why then, does the text repeat itself?
Rashi tells us that this redundant phase, Aish Tamid, is meant to serve as a connection to the fire used to light the menorah in the Temple, which also never gets extinguished. This Aish tamid, according to Rashi, is parallel to the ner tamid that we all know well, perched atop the aron, or ark, in our synagogues.
The ner tamid serves as an everlasting reminder to us, never to be extinguished. It connects us to God, calling us to bear witness to God’s perpetual presence on Earth. It stands as a symbol of our devotion to God and God’s devotion to us: a seemingly unbreakable bond.
Sometimes, that fire is on the verge of being extinguished, that bond hard to find. Sometimes the ner tamid feels like an empty symbol, a symbol of something that we doubt exists. Now is one of those times.
This moment that we are living in, that I have been living for the past month and some have been living in for much longer, calls into question everything we knew to be true. When all we were certain about in the world gets taken away, what are we to do? How are we to believe? When we look at the ner tamid, what are we supposed to see?
In Sh’mot Rabbah, it asks, “Why does Proverbs say: ‘For the mitzvah is a light’? Because just as a light is not diminished when a flame is kindled from it, so to doing mitzvot does not diminish oneself, but increases holiness and light in our world.” (36:3). When our foundations are shaken to the core, we instinctively turn inward and close ourselves off. We must protect what little we have left, shelter it off from the world. But the quickest way to extinguish a flame is to suffocate it. Cut off all of the oxygen and you can have all the kindling in the world, the fire still will not light.
This teaching about light reveals a powerful truth: when we open ourselves up, let the oxygen in, and kindle other lights, the light, the fire, only increases. Sh’mot Rabbah makes a powerful analogy for us: light and mitzvot act similarly. But I want to take it one step farther: not only do they act similarly, but they are synergistic. Light creates mitzvot, and mitzvot create light. When our light is low, when the ner tamid does not feel perpetual, doing mitzvot is akin to spreading that light, helping to bring light back into our lives when it feels absent. These acts of goodness, like light, help bring more rachmanut, compassion, and shleimut, completeness into the world, which in turn, make our lights brighter and spreads the light further.
The fire does not regrow all at once. It takes time for new kindling to catch, for the air to mix with the wood, for the fire to burn brighter. But with tender care, with communal support, with acts of gemilut chasadim, loving kindness, and tzedek, justice, the flame can grow again. It is my prayer for each of us here today, no matter if our fires are burning bright or struggling to stay lit, that we open our flames up to the community, sharing our light with each other and doing mitzvot to spread goodness in our world, bringing light and tzedek to all. And through that process, may our flames shine a little brighter. Ken Yehi Ratzon, may this be God’s will. Shabbat Shalom.
Aaron Torop is a Senior at American University in Washington, D.C. He is an alum of NFTY-STR and URJ Camp Coleman, and a lead organizer of college students in the Reform Movement's efforts to end gun violence.