Jewish Journal


April 1, 2004

Tend the Fire

Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-5:26)


"Israel is not a people of definers but a people of witnesses." -- Abraham Joshua Heschel, "God in Search of Man" Among the several stunning memorials at Buchenwald concentration camp, designer Horst Hoheisel created a simple, flat steel square placed on the cold, hard ground and inscribed in the center with an alphabetical list of the 50 nations of origin of the people who died there.

The temperature of the metal is kept at 98.6 F, the temperature of the human body. When one touches the plaque, it feels not cold -- as one expects from steel -- but warm, familiar, almost soft, as though touching the hand of a new acquaintance or the cheek of a dear friend. Snow falling on it quickly melts, raindrops and tears dry as they land upon the heated steel.

I recently returned, along with 17 of my congregants, from our first visit to Germany. We were guests of the German government-sponsored program Bridge of Understanding, which invites American Jews to make their own direct contacts with modern Germany, including contemporary Jewish life, and to witness firsthand a country deeply engaged in a unification process. Like most participants in the Bridge program, all 18 of us admitted to prejudices -- but were we ready to extinguish them?

In this week's Torah portion, Tzav, God tells Moses to command (tzav) Aaron and his sons regarding the fire upon the altar. 

"Fire always shall be kept burning on the altar," God says, "it shall not go out" (Leviticus 6:6). Isn't this redundant, ask the commentators. If it's always kept burning, of course it won't go out. And they answer, as always, that there is no redundancy, but rather a contrast to the burning bush, which was a miracle entirely of God's doing. To keep the fire ever burning on the altar, human beings must work alongside God. Mishnah Pirke Avot speaks of 10 miracles performed in the Temple, one being that rain never extinguished the fire of the wood arranged (on the altar) (5:5). Like the heated steel at Buchenwald, if humans devotedly tend the fire of the altar, to keep it burning, then no rain or snow will cool it off or snuff it out.

As it turns out, no one in Germany demanded that we dissolve our prejudices, they only invited us to examine them while we witnessed people honestly confronting their past, thoughtfully living in the present, and working toward a different future.

On our last morning there, we attended a Shabbat service, led by people our age, attended by children and adults. At least three generations were in that sanctuary, regular attendees at one of seven synagogues in today's Berlin. As we reached the verse l'dor v'dor ("from generation to generation we shall tell of Your greatness, and proclaim Your holiness") my eyes unexpectedly filled with tears. Unlike the tears I shed reciting "Kaddish" at Buchenwald, these tears fell warm and gentle -- welcomed -- down my cheeks.

If we tend the altars of our memories, letting the warm steel touch our hearts and our hands, allowing us to humanize the many people once dehumanized in that place -- in Buchenwald, in Germany -- then nothing will obscure their memory. And if we release our own propensity to dehumanize the ones still living in Germany, then we'll be able to hear the voices, and see the faces, of the ones there right now singing and living l'dor v'dor. On this Shabbat Hagadol, the Shabbat before Passover, this z'man cheiruteinu (season of our freedom), I am reminded that this is what Jews do -- working in partnership with God and with other human beings, we liberate ourselves, each generation, and we tell the stories of our liberations, one generation to the next.  

Lisa Edwards is rabbi at Beth Chayim Chadashim -- House of New Life -- in Los Angeles.

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