The Magdala Stone, one of the earliest known depictions of a menorah, estimated to be from the year 70 CE, is seen during a media tour at Israel’s National Treasures Storeroom, in Beit Shemesh.
(photo credit: REUTERS)
In the Torah portion we read this Shabbat, Parashat Tzav, we read many details pertaining to halachot (Jewish laws) of sacrifices and how they are to be sacrificed in the Temple.
These verses dealing with the Temple, which was destroyed about 2,000 years ago, seem irrelevant now that we are living in such a different culture and time. However, it is fascinating to continuously discover that they contain significant ideas that shed light on a person’s life in general, and a Jew’s life in particular, even thousands of years after they were written.
The parasha begins with a halacha pertaining to the flame that burned on the altar; the one into which the organs of the animals/sacrifices were thrown after they were slaughtered. Pieces of wood were placed at the base of this flame that would burn all the time.
Even though the sacrifices were made only during the daytime hours, the Torah forbids extinguishing the fire at any time of day or night.
“And the fire on the altar shall burn on it; it shall not go out.” (Leviticus, 6:5) And then again: “A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out.” (Lev. 6:6) This seemingly unnecessary repetition led the sages of the Talmud to examine these verses and learn another halacha. The fire burning on the altar was not meant only for the sacrifices, but for something else in addition. Two other actions were performed daily at the Temple using fire: lighting the menorah, and lighting the incense that gave off a pleasant smell in the Temple. These two actions were performed using the same flame that burned on the altar.
At first glance, these halachot seem irrelevant when the Temple is not standing. There is no menorah and there is no incense. However, one of the great commentators of the Bible, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (Germany, 19th century), deduced an idea, or a message, from these halachot that is relevant to every person in every generation.
The actions performed at the Temple were for the most part symbolic, representing different ways in which man can worship God. Thus, the menorah symbolized light and purity. It is for this reason that we light a yahrzeit memorial candle on the anniversary of the passing of those dear to us. The flame represents life, the soul which burns in all of us, as it is written, “Man’s soul is the Lord’s candle” (Proverbs 20, 27). The incense – giving off a pleasant smell – symbolized the special spiritual state.
On the other hand, it is difficult to find spiritual symbolism in the act of sacrifice. It is a physical act done to animals – slaughter, throwing blood, burning organs… All these represent deeds that are not in essence spiritual.
But these actions, when done with purity of the heart and proper intentions, also become sacred.
The flame used for spiritual acts, says Rabbi Hirsch, has to be taken from that same fire used for the sacrifices.
Every person has the tendency to disconnect the spiritual experience – the ideals, values and sense of purity that accompanies them – from the physical and materialistic. Sometimes we think that only by disconnecting ourselves completely from our daily lives will we succeed in experiencing those transcendental spiritual experiences. But the Torah guides us to the contrary, telling us that we should create the spiritual experiences from those same physical actions.
When we disconnect the spiritual experiences from daily life, they remain isolated and cannot affect our lives. A person can undergo a hugely significant and wonderful experience, but if it does not come from within his or her life, it cannot influence that life. It will not change the life and make it better. Only by linking our spiritual experiences to our everyday life can we fulfill the hope and role given to every human being: “To repair the world in the Kingdom of God.”The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.
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