Our ‘Altar’ Ego?
March 26, 2021
By Rus Devorah Wallen

Please enjoy this week’s T for 2!  You can listen by clicking the button or read the full transcript below.

Rus Devorah Wallen is an accomplished musician, performer, social worker, psychotherapist, and educator.

This week’s Torah Portion is Tzav, meaning, “command,” regarding the sacrifices on the altar. You might be familiar with the light that is always on found at the front of the sanctuary in pretty much every synagogue or temple. It’s called the ner tomid – the eternal light. The origin of this custom is found in this week’s portion, where the verse states, “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, it shall not be extinguished – Eish tomid tukad al hamizbe’ach, lo sichbeh.” In the times of the tabernacle in the desert, there was an altar, and then again in the Temple in Jerusalem. However, after the destruction of the Temples we no longer had an altar to maintain this eternal flame. Even though there is a daily hope for the Messianic era – Moshiach times, when the Temple will be rebuilt, meanwhile, the vestigial reminder of this eternal light is found around the globe in our shuls.

The Alter Rebbe, the first Lubavitcher Rebbe said, “we must live with the times.” Meaning, we should find relevant and inspiring lessons for our day to day lives. Most of us, especially during COVID times, are not entering the synagogue to be mindful of the continuous fire connecting our personal “sacrifices” to Hashem and his creations. What is the significance of the eternal flame for us today when we don’t have the altar?

King Solomon, the wise, in Proverbs, says, “Ki ner Hashem nishmas odom – The soul of man is the candle of G-d.” The neshama is a part of G-d Himself, always reaching for, and trying to gravitate to its source. Rabbi Yitzchak Ginsburgh, a modern day Kabbalist, describes this phenomenon like this:

“The living soul of man, the candle of God, sways back and forth, always aspiring to return to its Divine source, the infinite light of God. The soul’s natural phenomenon of swaying, like a living candle, reaches its peak when we learn God’s Torah and pray to Him from the depth of our hearts.” (www.inner.org)

Kabbalah explains that we each have a personal internal altar where we can offer our own unique gifts back to Hashem. As the Maggid of Mezritch, the main student of the Ba’al Shem Tov taught, when we perform proper actions without energy and warmth, fire and intensity, our action is inert, uninspired and disconnected. Using our personalized gifts of energy and passion, making an initial effort from below, engenders a reciprocal ‘awakening from Above.’ Our fire arouses G-d’s flame, creating a ping ponging effect that continues and grows. Each ignition inspires the next.

Remember the words in the verse, it shall not be extinguished? There is an interesting gematria on these words, “lo sichbeh.” Since the neshama always has a living connection with Hashem, it will never be put out, turned off. This is alluded to in the numerical equivalent of the initials of the words, “lo sichbeh” – Lamed (30) + Sof (400) = equals (430) the gematria of “nefesh.” We are thus promised the soul is eternal, never to be snuffed out.

The Maggid has another novel interpretation for the verse: “A constant fire … shall not be extinguished.” He plays with the words, “lo sichbeh – it shall not be extinguished,” saying that all of us have the “Lo” – the negative, the no, the not good – that which is not helpful, healthful, growth oriented, etc. The Maggid says, the “LO” – the negative in us must be extinguished “Sichbeh.” In other words, douse and smother the “lo” – the negativity. With the Maggid’s reframe, we read it this way, “The fire should stay ignited, and you shall extinguish the ‘no’ (lo)”— the negative.” The fire that fuels your altar is so potent, it can eliminate the negative elements that may stand in its way. Focused on strengthening ourselves, we won’t need to even see the negative. “Lo sichbeh”—the negative itself diffuses and is gone.

In the second verse of parshas Tzav, it says, …The burnt offering should remain on the altar all night until the morning, while the flame – mokdah – on the altar is still going.” Last week, in parshas Vayikra, we mentioned the interesting phenomenon of intermittent small and large letters found throughout the Tanach – the Hebrew Bible.

Again, in parshas Tzav, we have a small letter mem in word Mokdah which means flame. The letter mem spelled out is mayim – water. The Torah is considered like water that is refreshing, reviving, and flowing downward from a high place. The Chassidic leader, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotsk says, even if an average person who is involved in worldly affairs with little time to devote to Torah study, his little “mem,” his little “mayim,” is nonetheless considered a flame that needs to be maintained on the alter all night until the morning. In other words, sacrificing even a small amount of time and energy to Torah study when one is engaged in mundane affairs, is powerful. Even ‘overnight,’ during the challenges and darkness of world, we need to keep the flame alive.

This parsha is read Shabbos as we go into Pesach. We see the Mem is prominent in the recital of the Hagaddah and whole Passover Seder. Consider these important names and elements beginning with Mem, the first letter of Mitrayim, Egypt and all the constraints we left behind. The Mah nishtana, moror, matzo, Moshe, Miriam, the 10 Makkos or plagues. The numerical equivalent of Mem in gematria is 40, which corresponds to 10 – a number of completion times the 4 cups of wine we drink at the seder. They correspond to these verses in Exodus.

I am the Eternal. I will free you from the labors of the Egyptians and I will deliver you from their bondage. I will redeem you with an outstretched arm and through extraordinary chastisements. And I will take you to be My people, and I will be your God. And you shall know that I, the Eternal, am your God who freed you from the labors of the Egyptians. I will bring you into the land which I swore to give to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and I will give it to you for a possession, I the Eternal. (Exodus 6:6-8)

With all the interesting occurrences in the world, you might think we’re getting close to something literally earth shattering such as Moshiach. The Rambam’s last words from his magnum opus the Mishneh Torah, quotes a verse regarding Moshiach. This verse from Isaiah contains several mems and ends with the final mem that is equated with the final redemption. May we be worthy of the Rambam’s statement soon! “At that time there will be no famines and no wars, no envy and no competition. For the Good will be very pervasive. All the delicacies will be as readily available as is dust. The world will only be engaged in knowing G-d. Then, there will be very wise people who will understand the deep, sealed matters. They will then achieve knowledge of the Creator to as high a degree as humanly possible, as it says, ““Umolo ho’oretz de’ah es Hashem, k’mayim l’yam michasim – For the Earth shall be filled of knowledge of the Lord, as the waters cover the sea.”

Our 'Altar' Ego? - Jewish thought of the week graphic