Dr. Erica Brown is the Director for Adult Education at The Partnership for Jewish Life and Learning and the Scholar-in-Residence for The Jewish Federation of Greater Washington. She is the author of the book, Inspired Leadership: A Jewish Perspective and Jewish Boredom (forthcoming) and co-author of The Case for Jewish Peoplehood. She can be reached at ebrown@pjll.org

Fire is both attractive and repellent, mesmerizing and useful, an instrument of danger and one of warmth. The passion embodied by fire has many faces, and it is no surprise that pre-Socratic philosophers debated if fire was the source of all matter. The enigma of fire is captured in several verses of Matthew Arnold’s poem, “Mortality:”

We cannot kindle when we will

The fire which in the heart resides,

The spirit bloweth and is still,

In mystery our soul abides.

Arnold points to our inability, at times, to control fire. When fire is at its strongest, it often defies such calibrated control. Its life-sustaining, life-taking properties lend themselves naturally to comparison with God’s power.

In Leviticus 6:5-6, in the opening of this week’s Torah reading, Tzav, we are told the details of the sacrifice of the burnt offering.  We learn what the priest must wear for the sacrifice, the duration of the sacrifice’s burning and where the remaining ashes should be placed. Yet, only one image, the image of a constant fire on the altar is mentioned repeatedly.

The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it...A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar and not go out.

The priests fuel the fire daily and are in charge of keeping it going. We are not only told twice that the flame should keep burning; we are also told twice that the fire should not be extinguished. From this repetition, the sages of the Talmud concluded that someone who puts out the constant fire of the altar is liable for two punishments and not one since the Torah places particular emphasis on not putting the fire out. Other commentators are quick to point out that this is why the sacrifice is called a “tamid ” or constant offering; the fires which it is laid upon should never go out even though the sacrifice itself burns up and turns to ash.

Legal writers may see in this repetition the addition of a law but commentators with literary sensitivities saw in these perpetual fires an obvious and important symbol.  Fire is a symbol of God’s presence: divine light, heat and radiance. The sacrifice may turn to ash but the fires on which these human gifts are placed continue to burn. A medieval French commentator observes that as a sign of our respect for God the fire must be constant, even, he points out, during Israelite travels.

We all know how difficult it is to walk with a candle; the moment we stop, we find the flame restored but when we move, we risk putting the flame out altogether. We find ourselves walking cautiously and slowly in the tender and delicate task of preserving the flame. The external distractions of movement should not “alter” the importance of keeping the divine in our midst. 

There is a significant lesson in Tzav for leaders who can be so distracted by the fast and demanding pace of leadership that they lose touch with the core values that made them take a leadership role in the first place. The passion is soon doused by the enormity of the tasks. But with that passion goes the inspiration that makes all of the tasks worthwhile. External distractions should never keep us from preserving the flame. 

For all of the meetings we run and agendas we promote, the most important task of the leader is to stay in touch with the essential self. In my book, Inspired Jewish Leadership, I quote John Gardner, who observed that “by mid-life most of us are accomplished fugitives from ourselves” (Self-Renewal). Instead of nurturing the flame, we find it extinguished on its own from neglect. Tzav gives a whole new meaning to the term “burn-out.”

In the Tabernacle, the priests controlled altar fires by fueling them and keeping them alight. They understood that a small but well-protected flame can once again become a raging conflagration. That which is constant is not necessarily constant in its appearance or force. Fire is a symbol of our leadership. It may be tried and tested and may flicker but if well-insulated, it can return to its former strength. The fires of the altar, we are told repeatedly, must not be put out, and if we walk slowly and carefully, the flame will stay with us.