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AUDIO ESSAY: Torah for the Earth - Tzav

Welcome back everyone to this week’s Torah for the Earth audio essay. I’m your host, Charlie Forbes, and this week I will be addressing Parashat Tzav, which is Hebrew for “command.” This is a reference to the responsibility Moshe is given to “command" Aaron and his sons on their positions as kohanim, and their function within the larger framework of the priesthood. It’s a continuation of the sacrificial offerings that were discussed last week and includes additional information regarding the korbanot (the animal and meal offerings) and the ordination/consecration of the kohanim. I had mentioned in my previous commentary that the sacrificial offerings can be difficult material for the modern reader to wrap their heads around – so I’d like to continue with the theme of drawing a parallel between the Mishkan and the sanctuary that we all have within ourselves. In this way, the sanctuary that was built by the Israelites in the wilderness can have some bearing on our own environmentalism, because it’s rooted in our own internal, spiritual life and the influence it has on the condition of the modern world. There are two topics that I’m going to discuss today: 1) the aish tamid (אֵ֗שׁ תָּמִ֛יד), this is the continuous fire that was meant to be kept burning on the outer altar; and, 2) the thanksgiving offering (Heb: korban todah) (7:11) that is brought to express gratitude after someone survives a life-threatening crisis. The Sages teach that no matter the state of the world, there will always be a need for the thanksgiving offering (Vayikra Rabbah 9.7), which is meant to teach us about the importance of gratitude.[1] With all of the tension and uncertainty permeating the world at the moment, ha lachma anya (i.e. The Bread of Affliction) has become more than just a symbol – or a simple food – prepared for the Pesach seder.[2] It has become a living reality for all of us in this modern world faced with the challenges of contemporary life. But as we welcome in Pesach this Wednesday evening (on the 15th of Nissan), we do so with the understanding that the entire world has become unified in its suffering. The entire world has settled into Mitzrayim, and tasted of the maror – the bitter herbs, which symbolize the bitterness of our unsettling condition. On this day (the 10th of Nissan), we read Parashat Tzav on Shabbat HaGadol (The Great Shabbat) which occurs before the onset of Pesach. Somehow, we must learn to stoke the inner fire of our own aish tamid and work together to transform the Bread of Affliction into the Bread of Freedom. Somehow, I think (at least) this is done through the cultivation of gratefulness, and with the realization that our suffering is shared, difficult, and universal. Only then can we transition out of the narrowness of Mitzrayim, and into Z’man Cheiruteinu (the Season of Freedom), by holding onto the ideals and values that can build us a better world.

In the first chapter of the parashah, we are given additional information about the laws of the elevation-offering (Heb: olah). Verse (6:6) reads: “A permanent fire shall remain aflame on the Altar; it shall not be extinguished.” This commandment, regarding the continual fire that was commanded to burn on the outer altar (Heb: aish tamid), was part of the first temple service of the day, performed by the kohanim. There was a process whereby a portion of the previous day’s ashes from the Altar were separated and two logs of wood were added to keep the fire burning at all times.[3] The Midrash observes that a continual fire burned on this Altar for 116 years, which is an incredible amount of time.[4] But why, you must be asking, was the aish tamid important? What was its purpose? Put another way, what was it designed to protect – or even – to prevent? In the Mishkan, there were two altars – one inside of the sanctuary and one outside, in the courtyard. The continual fire burned outside, on the outer alter, which is said to correspond to the outer layer of the heart. There’s a Chasidic teaching that draws a parallel between the Mishkan and the sanctuary that lies within every Jew. More specifically, the Altars of the Mishkan correlate with the heart and its two inclinations, which is also is a topic explored in the Talmud (Berachot 54a), in a conversation about why the for word for heart (Heb: lev) is spelled with two vets in the Shema, rather than one (from the verse in the Ve’ahavta, which reads “b’chol levavecha,” “serve G-d with all your heart.”).[5] The sacrifices that occurred on the inner alter are said to correspond to the essential core of the human being and to the inward processes (intellectual/psychological) that one must undergo to draw closer to G-d. The point here is that these series of developments occur privately, away from the attention of others, and in a realm centered about ideas and concepts. But our love for G-d is not designed to be a private possession to embraced secretly, alone in the confines of our own heart. The fire of our love for G-d must also occur outwardly, out in the open, so that it can be revealed and shared with other human beings. The fact that this parashah begins with the term tzav alludes to the imperative of the outward manifestation of our service to G-d. “Throughout the Torah, [there are] three terms [that] are used to introduce a commandment: emor ‘tell,’ dabber ‘speak to,’ and tzav ‘command.’”[6] Tzav is the strongest of the commands; ‘tell’ and ‘speak to’ are much gentler forms of communication and leave much of the responsibility in the hands of the listener. But tzav is different. It doesn’t really leave any wiggle room when it comes to someone’s responsibility. Not only does it share a close etymological relationship to the word mitzvah; the implication is that the command which follows tzav is imperative for the listener. The continual fire that we are commanded to keep burning is an indispensable component to our interaction with the material; it must be demonstrated in the outward heart of the world.

Traditional rabbinic interpretations on the aish tamid use language revolving around love for G-d, and an outward expression of that fiery love. But I don’t think it would be too much of a stretch to extend that metaphor towards anything that we love in the world. We can love our dogs, our family, our plants, our morning runs or yoga sessions – we can love anything that falls within our service towards a greater reality, and that is infused with higher meaning. And the same comparison can be made with our responsibility towards the earth, and all living creatures. There’s a verse from Parashat Mishpatim (Exodus 23:5) that says: “If you see the donkey from someone you hate crouching under its burden, would you refrain from helping him? – you shall help repeatedly with him.” The Sages insist, that if you see an animal in distress, and if the one responsible for that animal is not present or is unable to help, it’s a mitzvah to intervene on behalf of the animal.[7] The Torah is maintaining that we must never let our discontent with another human take precedence over our willingness to help a suffering animal (Heb: tza’ar ba’alei chayim, Eng: suffering of living creatures). I bring this point up because it relates to the aish tamid, and the outward expression of our care and love for the earth. While we are commanded to keep the fire going (i.e. “a permanent fire shall remain aflame on the Altar”), we are also told that “it shall not be extinguished.” In Hebrew this is lo tihbeh (לֹ֥א תִכְבֶּֽה): lo means no, or do not, tihbeh means extinguish. In other words, we are commanded to keep the fire from going out – and, in order to do so, we must extinguish the negative; we must extinguish the lo.[8] Our capacity to fuel the aish tamid is dependent upon our willingness to rid our lives of the negativity and the hate that restricts the manifestation of our love. I brought in the passage from Parashat Mishpatim because it exemplifies this point and places our responsibility within the greater context of the earth and other living creatures. A somewhat dysfunctional mindset would allow itself to be overrun with hate, which then gets in the way of the spiritual work. In the Talmud (Bava Metzia 32b-33a) we read that “the requirement to prevent suffering to animals is by Torah law”[9] and, even further, the Gemara suggests: if one encounters a friend whose animal is suffering, and one encounters an enemy whose animal is suffering, that helping the enemy takes precedence. The reason for this is so that we can learn how to “subdue the evil inclination that encourages one to let an enemy suffer.”[10] This is an instance where we must extinguish the lo – the negative and dysfunctional patterns that restrict us from growing into our higher selves, and towards serving a greater good.

This same analogy can be extended towards our treatment of the earth. Countless ecosystems, and living creatures, are crouching under our burden. It is a difficult number to be specific about, but it’s estimated that thousands of species are going extinct every year.[11] We are living in a time often referred to as the sixth mass extinction, and this is evidence enough that there are still so many negative patterns to correct. The importance of the thanksgiving-offering can shed some light on this point, and I quote: “The Sages teach that after the coming of the Messiah and the perfection of the world, there will be no further need for offerings [of atonement, because people will no longer sin], but there will always be thanksgiving-offerings. This teaches both the importance of expressing gratitude and the teaching that in Messianic times, people will bless G-d even for what is seemingly bad, because they will realize that everything G-d does is ultimately good.”[12] Gratefulness can tip the scales; it is the great initiator, taking us past the threshold of our own reservations to extinguish the lo of negativity. In this way, the thanksgiving-offering can teach us how to feed the fire continually, how to focus our mindset and attention on a higher reality, and how to create an environment – how to create a Tabernacle – where the presence of G-d can reside. The responsibility we have to cultivate gratefulness is particularly emphasized on this day, Shabbat HaGadol, which is positioned within an extraordinary story about liberation from slavery. This is a powerful theme that transcends time, and echoes throughout eternity; it is a reminder to be grateful for everything that we have, and for everything that we wish to become as the world turns to express its own spring – its own season of freedom.

Thank you all for listening. That’s all for now, and I’ll catch you next week.

Topics Include: the aish tamid and the continuous fire, ridding our lives of negativity to help the suffering of all living creatures, and the thanksgiving-offering


Scherman, Nosson. "The Stone Edition of the Chumash: The Torah, Haftoras and Five Megillos, with a Commentary Anthologized from the Rabbinic Writings." (1993).

[1] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.575 [2] The following points were inspired by a lecture given by Rabbi Sacks on Shabbat HaGadol. It can be accessed here: [3] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.568 [4] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.570 [5] - (i.e. the yetzer harah and the yetzer hatov) [6] [7] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.434 [8] Miller, Chaim. Torah in Ten: Tzav [9] Accessed on: [10] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.434 [11] [12] Scherman, "The Stone Edition of the Chumash,” p.434

The Torah for the Earth Podcast and Audio Essays are Copyrighted to Charles Scott Forbes Jr, 2019.

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