In this week’s Torah portion we are given the details of the various sacrifices given in the Temple. While last the commandments regarding the sacrifices were more general, and addressed to the people as a whole, this week the commandments are a lot more specific, and are addressed specifically to the Kohanim (Priests).
The main distinction made between sacrifices in this week’s Parsha lies in their required service. Further distinctions are made as to the status of the food itself (either flour-based or meat-based) and various laws concerning who can eat what, and when.
The one thing all of these sacrifices have in common is the place they are offered. This is the Mizbeach, or altar. There is a very interesting commandment that is given regarding the Mizbeach. We are told: “the fire on the altar shall be kept burning; do not put it out.” (Leviticus 6:5)
This double language seems strange. There must be constant fire burning on the altar. Not only must is be kept burning, but we cannot put it out.
We also see a similar structure in this week’s Maftir, Parshat Zachor [See Parshat Zachor and Purim for more information on Parshat Zachor]. We are told that we must remember that which Amalek did, and we are told not to forget it.
Keep the altar burning and do not put it out. Remember that which Amalek did and do not forget it. What is the meaning behind this strange language?
I think this teaches us a huge lesson in Jewish education and continuity. The former Chief Rabbi of England, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, explains this phenomenon in the following way:
To be a Jew is to keep faith with the past by building a Jewish future. That is the secret of our unbroken capacity through centuries of suffering to renew ourselves as a people. (A Judaism Engaged With the World pg. 3)
We have to take both an active role in creating new Judaism, and we have to ensure that which is already created remains. The constant fire of the altar, which represents the Jewish soul, requires two services. Firstly, we must always add to it with new ideas and show the Torah to the world as the dynamic book we know it to be. Secondly, we must make sure that our rich history is not forgotten, because the fire that is already burning must never go out.
– Jonathan Levine