There is something magical about fire. It provides warmth, but has the power to burn. It is a source of light, but also a force of destruction. It can be comforting, but it is also dangerous.
I’ve always been fascinated by fire; the heat, the light, the colour, everything draws my attention and focus. When I was younger and the Shabbat candles were lit I used to squint and watch as rays appeared to burst free from the burning flames. These rays which disappeared when I refocused my eyes made the fire all the more intriguing. I would watch as the two flames danced on the wicks of the Shabbat candles. And it was not just on Shabbat; fire plays an important part across our Jewish observance. Chanukah is defined by the oil which burnt for eight days, on the anniversary of a person’s death we light a Yahrzeit candle, and it formed a central part of the sacrificial service.
It is the sacrificial service which is the major focus of this week’s Torah portion; beginning with the description of the Olah, the burnt offering. With this type of sacrifice it is hardly surprising that fire is a central element. The olah is ‘burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going’ (Leviticus 6:2). One can imagine that the sacrifice would have been completely consumed. But this is not the only reference to fire (esh): ‘And the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out; every morning the priest shall feed wood to it’ (Leviticus 6:5). The fire for the olah is not specifically lit, it is perpetually burning.
The Tabernacle was always ready for the burnt offering to be brought, and through the night as the Israelites slept the fire continued to burn. One must also imagine that the fire was protected, and maintained, as the Israelites journeyed through the wilderness. This would have required serious dedication and commitment to ensure that this fire was never extinguished.
In our environmentally conscious society we are always told to switch off lights, and preserve electricity. In contrast the Israelites kept this fire burning, even when they would not use it for sacrifices.
I think that there is something very powerful about the symbolism of this ever-burning fire. The Tabernacle in the wilderness would have always been a place of warmth and light. I have an image of a faint glow emanating from the Tabernacle at all times. Perhaps it would also have offered warmth for those in the wilderness who needed it. At the same time, with a fire burning at its centre the Tabernacle would have been a potentially dangerous place. People would have needed to approach with caution, conscious of the potentially destructive fire within, just ask Nadav and Avihu (Leviticus 10:1-3).
There is something else that I take from this ever burning fire. The Israelites were always ready to serve God. The Tabernacle and Priests were prepared to offer a sacrifice at any time, day or night, and maybe this is the lesson we should take. We need to be ready to serve God. Twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, we need to keep the fire within us burning. Whenever we have the opportunity to perform an act of tzedakkah, to work towards tikkun olam (the repair of the world) and to fulfil a mitzvah, we must feel the fire burning within us, and we must act. The ever burning fire of the Tabernacle is now within us, a force which can bring warmth and light to the world.