Yom Shabbat, 10 Tammuz 5778
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Shabbat Shalom with a Heart Healthy Dose of Torah--Tzav

I was one of those teenage students who did everything I was supposed to do, but only what I was supposed to do, to get good grades. I graduated high school with honors. I participated in a lot of activities. I also know that my heart just was not in a lot of it. Perhaps it did not help that I lived under my valedictorian brother’s shadow. I was never going to be as smart as was David. I was never going to be because I just did not care enough to be, yet still, others expected me to be. The one things that really mattered was throwing the discus and playing football, but I destroyed my shoulder during my freshman year at Tulane University. Oh well.

It was not until my brother went to Medical School at Tulane and we shared an apartment that I began to figure things out. First, I did not have to keep up with him. We were very different, but not lesser or better. Second, and far more important, I had aspirations and realized that walking through life is not going to get me there. Value is absolutely tied to effort. I got through everything but did not have much value to show for having done it. David always wanted to be a Doctor, and until the day he passed away was (by acclaim of colleagues and patients) one of the finest.

So, I look at this week’s Torah portion and somehow see my life's epiphany therein. Moses receives a command from God, “The fire on the altar shall burn on it; it shall not go out. The Priest shall kindle wood upon it every morning.” If we take the age-old precept that nothing in Torah is superfluous, then any perceived redundancy is not … redundant. Hence, we have, in this portion, two separate ideas. The first is that a fire burns on the altar 24 hours a day - 7 days a week. As the text seems to teach, this fire comes from God. We see from several places in Scripture that the altar fire comes straight from God (most notably the Elijah story). Whether the wood was there or not, the fire exists. The second piece tells us that even if the fire exists on its own, the Priest must still fuel it. Why do we need to fuel a fire that will not extinguish?

As I said, value is absolutely tied to effort. There may be a fire on the altar, but it can cook no food if we fail to engage it in an appropriate way. Fire may destroy us when we misuse it, as well. The priest has to fuel the fire and tend to it in order for the ritual offerings to have value. In tending to the fire, the resultant enhanced flame feeds the needy amongst us, helps ring atonement and restoration, and helps us acknowledge our thankfulness for the gifts that enrich our lives.

The very presence of God is meaningless if we pay no heed to the power that we can derive from the partnership. The time spent getting good grades has no value if one only remembers facts for a test and then empties the brain thereafter. I tell our youth that studying for the celebration of Bar/Bat Mitzvah is worthless if the goal is to regurgitate sounds that seem like Hebrew on the pulpit only to forget everything the next day. Each of us is a priest. Torah tells us that people of faith are a mamlechet kohanim, a kingdom of priests – all of us. Each of us has a life handed to us. We may not control it’s setting, it’s beginning or end, or the challenges or blessings that prejudice our paths, but each of us makes decisions on how to respond to all of it. If we fail to respond, we waste our lives.

I wasted a lot of years walking through relationships and opportunities. Perhaps this reality explains why I sometimes feel neurotically driven to fill my calendar … my life with so many chances to learn, to grow, to make a difference, and to celebrate life. Perhaps in my epiphany, I find the root of my standard answer to everyone who inquires as to my well being. “I am blessed every day.” I have learned of this gift from people in all stations of life: poor and rich; old and young; ill and well; oppressed and powerful. The origin of Gospel music was an affirmation that while white slave owners may have claimed to own someone’s body, no one owned his/her soul. The stories of heroism from the NAZI imposed ghettos reminds the world that we are prisoners of hope, even if held prisoner to hate. The Psalms both celebrate the majesty of our relationship with divinity and our commitment to seek light even in our darkest moments. The fire exists on your altar. With what will you tend it? With whom will you share its produce? U’v’charta b’chayim. Choose life, don’t just live it. Shabbat Shalom.