When discussing the details of the Temple activities in the Torah, we are not just referencing the ancient practices. Rather, we are learning essential and life-enhancing lessons for our character building and spiritual development.
In the Temple, there were two altars: the inner altar for incense and the outer altar upon which the sacrifices were brought. In this week’s portion we read (Leviticus, 1:5-6) that “The fire on the [outer] altar shall be kept burning; it shall not be extinguished. The priest shall kindle wood on it every morning…. A fire shall be kept burning continuously on the altar. It shall not be extinguished.”
As one reads these verses, an obvious question can be asked: If the fire on the altar is to be kept burning and not be extinguished, wouldn’t that imply that it must burn perpetually? What message does the Torah wish to convey by adding that the fire must be kept burning “continuously,” and what lesson does it teach us about the human soul?
In many synagogues, one will find a ner tamid, an eternal lamp above the ark. This eternal light is a symbol of the menorah, the perpetual light which constantly burned in the Tabernacle (and later in the holy Temple). It also serves as a symbol of God’s unwavering presence and of our perpetual faith in God.
The famous biblical commentator Rashi teaches us that by using the word “continuously” in the context of the outer altar, the Torah reminds us of the menorah which is called the “ner tamid,” the continuous light. It thereby teaches us the law that the menorah, which was in the inner, more sacred area of the Tabernacle, was lit from the aish tamid, the continuously burning fire of the altar that stood in the outer, less sacred area of the Tabernacle.
There is an important lesson in our self-refinement and Divine service in this detail. The menorah and other vessels of the inner area of the Tabernacle represents inner service, and the altar which stood on the outer, less sacred area of the Tabernacle represents our outer service.
Our inner service is where we focus on developing our personal character, and elevating ourselves. Our outer service is that which we do to benefit the well-being of those around us and our efforts to improve our environment.
As we endeavor to find happiness and fulfillment, we often get caught up in our own self-improvement and development, seeing any concern for the “outside” as a distraction. But the law of the menorah teaches us otherwise.
Just as the menorah must be kindled from the external altar, so too our eternal flame, our personal success and spiritual growth, can only be achieved when it comes from the eternal fire of the outer altar. It is only when we help others, when we perform activities that benefit our society, deeds that uplift the spirits of our friends and neighbors, that we will truly be able to focus on and find personal success and fulfillment.
This idea is expressed beautifully in the ancient Talmudic tradition of giving charity before praying. On an elementary level, giving charity before prayer is like giving a gift to the king before making a request. On a deeper level, however, it is about provoking God’s kindness through giving charity and doing acts of kindness ourselves.
Rabbi Shmuel, the fourth rebbe of Chabad, would elaborate: “Prayer must be with life. Through giving charity to a poor person and giving him life, one’s personal prayer is suffused with a great increase of ‘aliveness.’”
Indeed, the first thing we will do this Monday evening as we sit down to enjoy our seder will be to recite the “Ha Lachma Anya,” where we invite those who are hungry to join us. It is only when we ignite the eternal flame of another that we can truly experience the rich and life-enhancing traditions of Passover.
So, this year, as we prepare for our seder, let’s try to think of a Jewish person who may be on his or her own. Let’s invite them to a seder, or give them authentic shmura matzah or another Passover essential. This year, let’s ensure that we have done our part in seeing to it that every Jew has the ability to celebrate Passover and feel the continuous flame of their soul, and in turn, may God bless each of us and all of the Jewish people with a happy and healthy Passover.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach.