A Tidbit of Torah – Parshat Tzav 5784

A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.
Vayikra/Leviticus 6:6

Our parasha describes the initiation of formal worship by our Israelite ancestors after having completed the construction of the Mishkan while encamped at the foot of Mt Sinai. Through an elaborate series of religious rituals the Mishkan is consecrated, Aaron is ordained as Kohen Gadol, and Aaron’s sons are installed as Kohanim. These dedicatory rites are facilitated by Moshe in the presence of the entire nation, and on their behalf, as a reflection of their obedience to the divine will, and their desire to insure GOD’s ongoing presence in their midst.

Following these consecration rites our Israelite ancestors could see and celebrate the entry of GOD’s Kavod (“presence”) into the newly dedicated Mishkan as a visible manifestation described as a numinous cloud hovering above it and filling it, becoming luminescent at night. For the Israelites in the wilderness this was as an expression of GOD’s proximity to and concern for those who called upon GOD sincerely. The Israelites would have an ongoing responsibility for preserving GOD’s presence in their midst exemplified by the requirement that, “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.”

Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg(1) begins by citing a passage from the Jerusalem Talmud, “It shall not go out, even while travelling”. The Maharam brings this into his contemporary reality by pairing this perpetual requirement that is unique to the sacrificial cult with a second teaching in the Talmud that after the destruction of the Temple the family table replaces the altar as the nexus wherein God’s presence can be found in our midst as long as we maintain the flame of Judaism in our lives. No matter how challenging the journey becomes we can attach ourselves to the Holy One as a source of strength and support.

The Maharam’s focus on the family table is especially powerful as we turn our attention from celebrating Purim to our preparations for Pesach and determining who will be at our Seder tables. The gathering of family, friends, and guests to participate in familiar rites, discover new meaning in ancient texts, enjoy traditional family foods, and share familiar songs are our contemporary modes of transforming these moments into a connection with God’s presence and binds to our fellow Jews around the world.

Shabbat Shalom –
Rabbi David M. Eligberg

1 Rabbi Meir of Rothenburg, also known by the Hebrew language acronym Maharam of Rothenburg, “Our Teacher, Rabbi Meir” (c. 1215 – 2 May 1293) was a rabbi who was a major contributing author of the Tosafot, a discussion and expansion of Rashi’s commentary on the Talmud.

The Maharam wrote no single major work, but left many notes and commentaries on existing texts, many liturgical poems and some 1,500 responsa. These responsa provide much information about Jewish life and customs in his era, especially for the picture which they give of the condition of the German Jews, and of their sufferings at the whim of local princes and from heavy taxation.