Jewish learning Sustaining Eternal Flames
Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)
A favorite song—or, songs, actually—in the Jewish activist circles I often run in is a mashup which takes a verse from this week’s parashah, transformed into a chant by the illustrious Shefa Gold, and combines it with a classic protest song. The result is a powerful agitation, as organizers use that word, meaning: something to inspire a sense of self-interest and personal investment in the issue at hand.
The verse, Leviticus 6:6:
אֵשׁ תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ לֹא תִכְבֶּה׃
A constant fire is to be kept blazing on the altar—it is not to go out!
And the protest song, written in 1930 by Florence Reece during a coal mining strike in Kentucky (here is a Pete Seeger recording):
Which side are you on? Which side are you on, my people?
The power of this mashup to agitate comes first from the context of the verse: We find it in the midst of what is, essentially, a cookbook of sacrifice recipes: which parts of which animals get burnt and which get eaten, who gets to eat it, how we clean the altar, and how each sacrifice, although mostly similar, is also just a little bit different. This instruction seems like a simple yet integral ritual ingredient to make the magic work: whatever else you do, don’t let the fire on the altar burn out. Even amongst the myriad mundane tasks you must do to make and eat each sacrifice, you must tend to the fire at the center of this project.
As a tired ritual leader and somewhat burnt out activist, this context feels particularly resonant: I recently downloaded a new task management app and right now I have 41 “overdue” tasks. These tasks range from “call Oakland Kosher about Passover brisket” to “upload March data to Salesforce” to “do the outreach. All of it. TODAY.” (That last one was due March 15th.) There are a few substantive things on the list that feel a little more “rabbi-y” to me—like actually creating the content of the seder where the brisket will be served—but those pale in comparison to the tasks which start with the words like, “email,” “respond to,” or “follow up with.” When faced with the endless minutiae of building a community and caring for its spirit, how exactly does one stay passionate and invested?
The Toldot Ya’akov Yosef, a student of Hasidism’s founder, the Baal Shem Tov, asks this exact question in one of his commentaries¹: when behind the scenes of what seems like passion—behind what appears to the outside observer to be a roaring fire—lurk the endless tasks of sending follow-up emails and buying snacks for meetings (our modern experience of cleaning ash from the fireplace and distributing priestly rations), how do we sustain the Eternal fire?
Through a maze of mystical interpretations, and seemingly esoteric threads, he ultimately writes that sustaining the Eternal flame requires us, the average people striving for holiness and wholeness,
…that [we] too arouse [our]selves and connect with the ones who seek the welfare of the faithful in Israel. When [we] connect only in [our] own groups, and when [we] poke fun at each other, evil follows, God forbid.
Said another way, the people must kindle within ourselves a passion for the welfare of our kin and our neighbors. We must reach for God through the lens of caring for others—rather than turning inward and caring only for ourselves. He takes this idea back to the verse, originally an instruction for Aaron and his son.
What does it mean that, “a perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar”? At the beginning it was warning for the priests that they are responsible for the welfare of the faithful in Israel, and now, it is a warning for the common folk… that they will cause “a perpetual fire to be kept burning”, by taking responsibility for the welfare of the faithful among Israel.
That is to say, the common people have inherited Aaron’s commandment to sustain the fire Eternally, and we enact that by inspiring each other to fight for one another’s welfare.
Which brings us back to the mashup above. “Which side are you on?” This mashup, it turns out, is a pretty effective summary of the Toldot Ya’akov Yosef’s lesson. Which side are you on, in the context of the original Florence Reece song, is a leading question. Though the lyrics don’t explicitly answer, the implication is clear: we are on the people’s side. We stand with the striking coal miners, with the civil rights leaders and anti war protestors, and with the generations of activists who have taken this song with them to protests and picket lines. The longevity of this song, which has remained relevant through so many struggles for justice and across so many of the lines that usually divide us, only to land in this 21st century Levitical mashup, exemplifies the Toldot Ya’akov Yosef’s call to resist divisions amongst people and work for the welfare of all, lest we cause evil (God forbid).
The chances that the people who paired Rabbi Shefa Gold’s chant and Florence Reece’s protest song were acquainted with the Toldot Ya’akov Yosef are slim. Yet both parts of the mashup contain strong echoes of the Hasidic rabbi’s vision of deep community and intercommunal bonds as a source of strength when the work becomes tiresome. Both Florence Reece and the Toldot Ya’akov Yosef teach us to answer the challenge posed by God’s instruction to maintain an ever-burning flame—by reaching outside of ourselves and stoking our sense of responsibility for the welfare of the people. In this way we refuse to allow the mundane, routine tasks of liberation and holiness to quell our passions or lull us into complacency. The flame is sustained through the call and response of the song: Which side are you on? We’re on the people’s side!
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- On Parashat Vaera.
Rabbi Frankie Sandmel (they/them), Hebrew College ‘22, runs Base Bay where, together with their partner Elaina, they are building a vibrant, rooted, and resonant Jewish community out of their home in Oakland. In their free time, Frankie is a fellow with SVARA: A Traditionally Radical Yeshiva and they bake a lot of cookies.