Walk into many synagogues, and you will find a small light fixture hanging just in front of the Aron Kodesh (the Holy Ark where the Torahs are housed). The bulb in that fixture is always on. Twenty-four hours a day, every day, always. It is called the “Aish Tamid” — the eternal flame.
The source for this common but not universal custom is a mitzvah in this week’s Parshah. G-d commands Israel to keep a flame burning continuously on the Mishkan’s outer altar. In the Torah’s words, “An eternal flame shall burn on the altar;
do not put it out.”
Without a Mishkan, a Holy Temple or an altar, this mitzvah is temporarily impractical. We eagerly await the coming of Moshiach and the return of many of the mitzvot, the Aish Tamid included. Until then, for many of us, those words evoke an image of a soft, flickering light, a fixture in shul, always on, never out.
But a modern application of the mitzvah of Aish Tamid can mean far more than a pretty light fixture. In fact, the idea it represents and the challenge it presents to each of us is one of the support beams of Jewish life and observance.
One of the great achievements of the teachings of Chassidut is the marvelous, emotional revival of many of the Torah’s dormant mitzvot. Impractical as they may be in their original, physical form, they are still very much alive in alternative forms — forms as true to the original Divine intent as the physical act.
Two great and related examples are the mitzvah of Aish Tamid and the mitzvah to wipe out the nation of Amalek. Let’s take a look at them, one at a time, through the lenses of Chassidic wisdom.
Taking a cue from the fact that G-d asks for the Mishkan by requesting a place where He might “Dwell in them,” as opposed to the expected “Dwell in it,” Chassidut teaches that G-d considers the Mishkan to be a symbol of the people — and each of the people, a spiritual Mishkan. He wishes to dwell in the Mishkan and also in each of us. Each detail of the Mishkan, then, indicates an aspect of the human form, and the flaming altar is the warm heart.
When G-d asks for a flame to be burning nonstop on the altar, He is also asking us to keep a fire burning in our hearts nonstop. He is asking for both passion and consistency. Keep the fire going, and keep it going without a break. Although constant passion may seem like a paradox, it wouldn’t be the first time G-d asked the impossible of us; and with faith, it can be done.
And when it is done, a great accomplishment awaits. “An eternal flame shall burn on the altar; do not put it out.” The great and holy Maggid of Mezritch, disciple and successor of the Baal Shem Tov, interpreted the words “do not put it out” as “Put out the ‘not.’”
The eternal flame will extinguish the “no,” the nagging negativity that holds us back from immersing joyously and completely in our Jewish identity and tradition.
And this is where Amalek comes in.
Amalek attacked the Israelites as they marched out of Egypt and through the Red Sea, leaving the mighty Egyptian armies in pieces. The world trembled in awe of Israel at that time. G-d’s protection was palpable and undeniable. The greatest kings and warriors shuddered at the thought of the Israelites heading their way. And while the world quaked in fearful respect, what did Amalek do? They said, “Aw, who cares?” and attacked Israel. They knew they would be crushed, but they couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a dent in Israel’s esteem. They weren’t out to prove that Israel could be beaten, only that they weren’t untouchable.
In modern terms, this attitude is one that seeks to sow skepticism wherever holy excitement takes root. This particular unholy energy is not out to defeat goodness and kindness, only to rob them of their confidence and momentum. It’s not that it isn’t good to be good, Amalek reasons; it just isn’t that important. It can wait. It can be a different time. It can be a different way. It doesn’t have to be. No big deal.
How does one overcome the draining and discouraging effect of such scorn and derision? How does energetic optimism survive this brand of chilling negativity? When everything good and holy inside us is shouting “Yes!” and that annoying voice drawls, “Nah,” what then?
Aish Tamid is the answer. Amalek’s chill may be a formidable icicle, maybe even an iceberg, but with enough persistence and consistency, the eternal flame brings a thaw, then a drip, then a complete collapse. The consistent, energetic, optimistic warmth of the Aish Tamid will always, eventually, melt cold negativity.
This is the power of the inner Aish Tamid. It may not be as easy and as pretty as the light fixture version, but it has transformative power. And it can be employed at any time, and especially in the performance of a mitzvah or in the process of prayer. Instead of dispassionate discharging of religious duty, light a fire under your soul and pour your heart into the mitzvah or the prayer. Cancel the cold and bring on the heat. Good, old Chassidic warmth will always send inner doubts ducking for cover. A sour face is no match for a warm heart.
“An eternal flame shall burn on the altar; it will put out the ‘No.’” PJC
Rabbi Moishe Mayir Vogel is executive director of The Aleph Institute – North East Region. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.