There is a striking repetition near the opening of Tsav, this week’s parashah, as the work of the priests is described:
“The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it…A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” (Vayikra 6:5-6, NJPS)
In two short verses the same basic idea is expressed five times—namely, that the fire on the altar, once set, should never be allowed to go out. Twice it says the priest should keep it burning (תוקד); twice, not to quench it (לא תכבה); and once the fire is described as perpetual (אש תמיד).
The Rabbis of the Talmud (Yoma 45b) argue that the repetition is merely apparent. These repeated words tell us how many piles of wood were involved and what other flames were lit from the fire on the altar (נר תמיד).
Yet, I want to think about these verses more symbolically by holding on both to the rabbinic reading AND to the repetition.
Consider the sacred work done by the teachers and staff of Schechter and other Jewish schools. The task of a Jewish education involves lighting a fire in all our children, just as the priests light each and every pile of wood. It isn’t enough to engage and excite only some Jewish children about learning—it must be all our children.
Let’s not lose the repetition, however, since telling us to keep the flame alive is a reminder of two other critical aspects of the work. First, each day we must renew our commitment to fuel the passion of our children for learning, and the connection they feel to Judaism and their people. Second, that we take care to prevent experiences that might quench that passion and connection. Teachers do this by infusing Jewish education with care, intention, and love.
May our Torah reading be a reminder of the challenge and sacred work of keeping the flame within our children burning brightly.
Jacob Pinnolis, Director of Teaching and Learning & Jewish Education, Gann Academy