Tzav-Light Within

A verse in our parsha (Tzav) tells us that the fire on the outer altar must be kept burning at all times: “The fire on the altar should be kept burning, it should not extinguish…”  (Lev 6:5).  The Yerushalmi Talmud (Yoma 4:6) elaborates: “It should not become extinguished even on Shabbat or even if one becomes spiritually impure (tamei).”

Our goal is to understand these comments so that we can apply them to our avoda – our path of worship and getting closer to God.  From Chasidut, we know that the external altar corresponds to our heart within – it is our source of inspiration (fire) and connection with that which is beyond us, whether man or God.    The heart has an inner chamber and an outer chamber, and the same is true of the altar; there was an outer altar upon which the sacrifices were brought, and an inner altar on which to burn the incense.  The outer chamber corresponds to our conscious desires and appetites, as well as to our intellect, while the inner chamber of the heart contains our deepest (often unconscious) emotions and infinite longings.

When the Jerusalem Talmud tells us that the fire on the outside altar must remain burning even on Shabbat, and even if brought by someone who is spiritual impure, it contains a message for us.  The fire that burns constantly on the external altar is the love for God that we develop by meditation on Godliness and spiritual concepts,  This intellectual meditation directs our desires away from physical matters toward spirituality and also raises our awareness of Godliness.  The Talmud tells us that this should occur “even on Shabbat.”  On Shabbat, when there is a higher spiritual illumination shining in the world, we might think that we don’t need to meditate nor work as hard as we do (spiritually) during the week.  The Jerusalem Talmud comes to tell us otherwise, that even on Shabbat we must exercise our power of intellectual meditation.  If we do so, then the Shabbat illumination will lift us to even higher levels.

And then the Yerushalmi continues: “Even one who is impure” may bring the fire to the outer altar.  We all make mistakes.  We all fall for the yetzer harah (“evil inclination”) at times and we do things that the Torah has instructed us not to do.  When we become ashamed of ourselves and we want to do teshuva (“return to God”), it may occur to us that since we transgressed and acted against the will of God, “who are we” to bring the holy fire to the altar?  Who says we may approach anything holy while in our condition of guilt and impurity?  To this, the Yerushalmi answers that the fire must remain lit even during our impurity.  We must not be so ashamed that we are embarrassed to try again to get close to God.  He wants and desires our teshuva, and we must not forsake the avoda of meditation and inspiration however far away and impure we might feel.

There is something more to be learned regarding the fire on the outer altar.  It didn’t come as the result of man alone, and yet it would not have have occurred without human effort.  For seven days, Moshe and Aharon assembled and dis-assembled the mishkan (“tabernacle” in the desert) and only on the eighth day did they manage to set it up permanently.  Only on the eighth day did the fire come down from above to inaugurate the altar of the tabernacle.  The seven days represent the gamut of human emotion, the span of effort in which we human beings are able to invest ourselves.  The eighth day represents that which is beyond, that comes in response to our efforts.  As the Talmud (Yoma 21B) says, “Even though fire descends from Above, it is necessary to bring fire from below.”  God responds to and answers our meditation and prayers, but only after we put effort into them.

The lesson is that even in avodat Hashem, there is no “free lunch.”  There is no such thing as spiritual maturity without effort.  But, once we use our own talents, intellectual and emotional, to elevate ourselves as much as possible, “the sky is the limit.”  God responds from above with unlimited spirituality.

For a more detailed and lengthy version, go to

From Likutei Sichot of the Lubavitcher Rebbe, vol 1, pages 217-222



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