Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Dvar Tzav

Dvar, Parshat Tzav, 5768. Rich Furman

Permanence in Diaspora

No one knows a synagogue building better than a child on the verge of becoming bar or bat mitzvah. They explore the corridors, every nook and cranny. They know where to hide, where all the best bathrooms are, and sooner or later they inevitably discover that the Ner Tamid, which they have been told all their short lives means "Eternal Light," isn’t. This moment came for me as I was poking around a small alcove in the Rego Park Jewish Center, when I found a circuit breaker labeled very clearly "Ner Tamid." For some of this congregation's children I suppose that moment came when, a few years ago, there was a power outage, and the Ner Tamid went out but the Menorot over the exits remained on. It struck me at the time as poor stagecraft that the Ner Tamid was not on the emergency power system, but even in this, there are lessons to be learned.

One of the questions that always stayed with me since my own discovery is why the Ner Tamid, alone, had such a clearly labeled circuit breaker. Was it left like that so that we would discover it, wrestle with that discovery, and come to our own conclusions before we stood upon the Bimah as adults for the first time? Was this discovery a rite of passage, a stern reminder that human institutions, such as synagogues, were human institutions, and not divine? That whatever myths we had developed as children to rationalize a light that glowed eternally, despite the fact that we knew that bulbs burn out could not be carried into adulthood?

There are two commandments in the first reading of Parshat Tzav whose juxtaposition strikes me as being equivalent, somehow, to that moment of cognitive dissonance. The first is that a fire be kept burning constantly upon the altar - this is the source for the Ner Tamid. The second is that the meal-offering be consumed as matzot. The reason that these two commandments, side by side, trouble me is that the first speaks to permanence and rootedness but the second speaks to transience.

The first time we encounter Matzah is in Genesis. The angels arrive at Sodom, where they are greeted by Lot, who invites them for dinner. He serves them Matzah. The rabbis disparage Lot's hospitality, after all Abraham had spared no expense. What kind of awful host is Lot that he just fed them Matzah? But the angels are there to lead Lot and his family out of a city that God is about to destroy. Matzah is what we eat when we don't have leisure to knead, and proof and shape and proof again and bake. It is a bread baked by someone who knows he may have to flee at any moment. It makes sense that this is what Lot would have on hand given that he could be run out of town at any moment. He is in fact redeemed from from the towns immanent destruction. Lot's family's exodus for Sodom foreshadows the Israelite exodus from Egypt, where matzah once again figures as a symbol of hasty departure.

And so we find ourselves, in the first Aliyah of Parshat Tzav, in the Mishkan, itself a temporary structure, being told never to let the fire burning on the altar go out, but not being told how to preserve it when the encampment moves, and move it must, because despite the Midrash telling us that leaven cannot mix with the meal offering because of the meal offering's holiness, the symbolism of the priests eating matzah remains an indicator of our transience.

The problem of how they preserved that flame puzzled me, and I reflected on it, sought opinions on it and researched it. In my own reflections, I imagined an ember being carried, perhaps - in the manner of Prometheus - in a fennel stalk. One of my teachers at Melton, Rob Portnoe, imagined a torch being kindled and carried, and the flame carried that way. And my research turned up a passage in the Jerusalem Talmud which suggests that they covered the flame with a large pot when they traveled. (JT Yoma 4:6)

All of these ideas share one thing in common: that it is upon us to carry the flame wherever we travel, be it in the land of Israel or outside it, whether we are settled in a place or moving between places. It would be poetic, perhaps, to say that that light is our tradition and we must keep it burning in our hearts. But Judaism knows that abstractions like that are not sufficient to maintain continuity. It takes the reification of that idea, whether as a flame on the altar or a lamp over the the the ark or the lights we kindle on Shabbat and Festivals to make it real.

And as we move from place to place we carry two things with us, the matzah, that teaches us that we need to be alert for the moment that God says its time to move on, and the flame, which teaches us that wherever we set up camp God is with us. But just as the flame needed care and tending to remain burning, just as the bulb in the Ner Tamid above us now needs to be changed from time to time, so a relationship with God is something that requires tending and attention.

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