Author’s Note: As this crisis continues, VBS is here for you. Please go to our webstie vbs.org to find resources for you and your family including our virtual communityValley Beth Shalom @Home. For Passover: We have a comprehensive guide with songs, selling Chametz, seder ideas and more.
As we move through yet another week of social distancing and the reality that this rhythm of life is here with us for a while, a type of malaise can easily set in. This past week, I’ve been talking with many, many people who are dealing with the work-life balance of crisis homeschooling and trying to be productive. I’ve talked with more and more people being furloughed or laid off as revenue is drying up and businesses are closing. On a different level, social distancing has meant compounding difficulties for life’s already complicated twists and turns. Whether a loved one is sick with COVID-19, or has any other medical condition that hospitalizes them, or if a family member or friend passes away, the new landscape we inhabit prohibits us from holding them close. As the days become weeks and the weeks become months, it will become increasingly easy to feel that our souls are adrift. Unmoored from each other where every day feels like every other and with no real end in sight, it can easily feel that we are listless with no direction or hope or favorable wind to bring us home. That’s because the truth is that this virus doesn’t just attack our bodies, it attacks our souls.
In moments like these, when purpose feels far off, and redemption even farther, it’s important to reach into the spiritual toolbox and pull out that part of ourselves that helps us persevere. Typically, our spiritual selves look for a dramatic or dynamic spirituality, where music, dance, or singing draw us to an emotional plane that sets our souls on fire. This is the kind of spirituality highlighted most in religious experiences like worship services, or at a great rock concert or sports arena. In the sway of the crowd, and the unifying feeling of community, we are elevated and assured. But in our time of social distancing, we can’t feel the press of another against our backs, the vibration in our chest with the roar of the crowd, or the common flow that gives us strength in prayer gatherings.
Instead we need a different kind of spiritual tool, one that does not rely solely on the peaks and valleys of the dramatic kind. This other type of spirituality is of the one who tends to things. Spirituality of this sort is best defined by the person who has a project they must come back to again and again. Think of the gardener who tends her flowers, the person who takes pleasure in cleaning out his house, or the person who repairs their own car. These spiritual tenders are living with a different sacred cadence that finds elevation not in the dramatic catharsis, but in the small and essential triumphs of living every day.
Judaism has much to say about spiritual tending. In the classic understanding, we wait for the Messiah who will come to us in some future time when all will be liberated. While we wait for that epic redemption in the future, there are an infinite number of redemptions to have right in front of us. From the myriad of mitzvot to be practiced, to the one hundred daily blessings, Jewish life is characterized less by apocalyptic drama, but by the daily discipline of everyday transcendence. So strong is the focus on everyday living, that if we were in the middle of planting a tree and the Messiah revealed themself to us, our tradition says to finish planting the tree first before running to greet them. (Avot D’Rabbi Natan 31b)
The essence of spiritual tending is found in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav. Going deeper into the Book of Leviticus, we find among sacrificial rites a special commandment for the priests to maintain the sacred fire at the center of the Mishkan, or Tabernacle. “A perpetual fire shall burn on the altar; do not put it out.” (Lev. 6:6) This special fire was to be kept burning night and day regardless of the season. The rabbis of the Talmud looked closely at this verse and noticed that the commandment at the end of the verse to “not put out the fire” is implied in the beginning. That is, if one is commanded to have a perpetual fire, why include the commandment to not let it extinguish. They answer by telling us that the verse is teaching us two values, firstly to have a fire on the altar, and secondly a “mother-fire” from which other lights like the Menorah are to be kindled. (T.B. Yoma 45b, see also Rashi) So important is this sacred fire that it must be tended to every day, for without it, no other light can be kindled.
Deeper still, the rabbis ask an arresting question. They ask, if this fire is to be kept going, how is one to fulfill this spiritual practice on Shabbat when the Torah is clear that “No fire shall be kindled on the Sabbath in your dwelling places,” on the penalty of death? (Ex. 35:3; 31:14) How can one maintain both of these practices simultaneously? The Midrash answers, stating that the commandment applies only to regular homes and businesses. In the holy space, the mikdash, the commandment of Exodus is overridden by Leviticus. The priest keeps the fire going, adding wood and tending to the flames. (Mekhilta 35:3) So powerful is spiritual commandment of tending this fire, that one may desecrate the Sabbath to keep it going.
Further still, the spirituality of tending is so strong that priests must maintain the flame even during their journey across the desert, even if there are no ritually pure priests to make sacrifices upon the altar. (Bamidbar Rabba 4:17). Nothing is to prevent the fire from going out: not travel, not sickness, not even the Shabbat.
What begins as a daily task for an ancient priest becomes a powerful lesson for today. In this time of isolation, when purpose seems lost in the fog of the horizon, and our social fabric is called into question, we must lean into Leviticus and tend our sacred fires. Find the sacred in everyday moments by creating intention and purpose. Judaism shares a rich tradition to help shatter the mundanity with sparks of holiness. Everything we have taken for granted must, for the time being, become intentional. If you want to find purpose in your life and feel uplifted, you must set before yourself a sacred task every day.
On the central altar in the center of the Tabernacle which is in the center of the encampment, Leviticus is teaching that there is a perpetual fire that needs your partnership to keep it going. Every day that you commit yourself to tending, is a day won against the darkness.
The fire burns. It must be tended. Do not let it go out.
Stay safe, stay healthy, stay loving.