The Fire on the Altar; The Fire Inside Us


By Clifford S. Fishman

This week’s Torah portion is Tzav: Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

Fire is a powerful force — and a powerful symbol.

According to a Midrash, fire first entered the world when Adam saw that the sun was setting and the world was getting dark. He feared the world would end when the light disappeared. To reassure him, God showed Adam how to light a fire. According to this Midrash, fire, if properly used, is a gift from God: we use it to create light, warmth and so much else that comforts and protects us.

Fire has a prominent place in this week’s Parashah. In Leviticus 6:2, God instructs Moses to tell the Israelites, “The fire on the altar is kept going on it.” God repeats this instruction in 6:4 and, in 6:6, emphasizes that it is to be “a perpetual fire [that must] not go out.”

To our ancestors, according to Professor Ze’ev Falk, the fire in the Mishkan (and later, in the Temple) was a physical, visual symbol of God’s presence among the Israelites, Even today, it is a powerful symbol: “Its mysteriousness and unpredictability make it very much representative of the divine. But its fragility and ephemerality speak to humanness. It is truly a gift of God, maintained and strengthened by the hands of human beings. Torah, too, is a gift of God that requires human care to be perpetuated.”

So, fire is a symbol of God. It is a gift from God, which empowers us to create light and warmth. It is a symbol of our own fragility. And it is a symbol of Torah, God’s greatest gift to us, which we must maintain to help us make a better world.

The fire on the altar also symbolizes how we should live our lives. Verse 2 is generally translated, “The fire on the altar is kept going on it.” But the last Hebrew word (“bo”) can also be read to mean, “within him” rather than “on it.” Thus, the fire on the altar represents desire, passion, zeal and commitment.

Abraham Joshua Heschel cites two models for that fire within. First, the Baal Shem Tov urged that this inner fire should be a “flaming personality” that would publicly “radiate love for God and Torah from the inside out.” By contrast, Menahem Mendel, the Kotzer Rebbe, argued that the “flame should be steady and burn at full force, though deeply concealed.”

Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, quoting Professor Falk, the Baal Shem Tov and the Kotzer Rebbe, urges each of us to “choose and aspire to our own vision of the spiritual flame within our souls.”

But desire, passion, zeal and commitment — like fire — are gifts which impose responsibilities: to keep them perpetually alive, to live by them, to use them, to share and to spread them — and to control them, because if we lose control of them, they can destroy the very things that make our lives beautiful and meaningful. We must use them to benefit others, not to divide people against each other. Too many people — including some in, or seeking, very high positions of authority — are experts at stoking the fires of resentment and hatred and fear.

Controlling those fires is hard work — often, unforgiving and thankless work: to preach and practice moderation, open-mindedness and compromise. And as a lawyer, I must add: to insist on due process of law. “Justice, justice you shall pursue.” We must pursue justice; but our methods and procedures must be just and fair.

We must do our best, as Jews and as Americans, to keep the fire going within us and under control, and to seek out opportunities to encourage others to do likewise.

Clifford S. Fishman is Emeritus Professor of Law at the Catholic University of America and a long-time member of Tikvat Israel Congregation in Rockville, MD.

Never miss a story.
Sign up for our newsletter.
Email Address


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here