This past week I was invited to speak to fifteen soon-to-be-ordained rabbinic students at the Hebrew Union College – Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles. I was joined by two long-time friends and colleagues on a panel and we were asked to share what has kept us excited, inspired, passionate, and creative in our work as congregational rabbis (I am now in my thirty-eighth year of service).
This question, however, isn’t only a question for rabbis. It’s also for everyone who works hard, takes pride in their work, seeks excellence, wants to make a contribution, and hopes to maintain a healthy balance in their lives.
It so happened that the Torah portion this past week was Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36). At the beginning of the portion there appears a relevant verse to the question we were asked to address:
“The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept burning on it.” (6:2)
The English translation that appears in most editions of the Bible, however, is incorrect. Here is the relevant Hebrew of the final phrase of the verse: “V’esh ha-mis’bei-ach tukad bo – The fire of the altar burns in it [It does not read “tukad alav – burns on it”].”
Since the destruction of the Second Jerusalem Temple by Rome in 70 C.E. when all sacrifices ceased, many Jewish commentators have interpreted the sacrifices (korbanot) as metaphors. The altar can refer to the human heart, and the fire that burns in the altar can refer to the fires of excitement and inspiration that burns also in the heart.
We were asked – What keeps our inner fires burning in service to the Jewish people?
I was moved by the question and took it to my congregants who study Torah with me on Friday mornings, and to my family and friends at our Seder. I asked the question more broadly: “What sustains you in your life and in your work?”
Here are some of their responses:
- Many of the men who learn Torah with me each week say that engaging with the ancient, medieval and modern texts ground them in who they are as Jews, as human and spiritual beings, and as inheritors of 3600 years of Jewish engagement with God, ethics, practice, culture, and history;
- My Seder family and friends said that whenever they read fine literature and poetry and then write themselves, or when they listen to and play musical instruments, visit museums or galleries and create art, work in their gardens and cook creatively, the embers in their hearts are stoked;
- Two people mentioned that the mastery they have attained in their work inspires them to learn more, teach others, publish, and carry on the work;
- A recovering alcoholic said that daily prayer and meditation brings her back to her best and most natural self;
- Many said that helping others and engaging in social justice work connect them to community and to higher ideals that inspire and sustain them;
- Several said that sitting quietly in a favorite place renews them;
- Many spoke of the love they feel for their spouses, children, grandchildren, parents, brothers, sisters, extended family, and friends as the embers that feed their inner flames.
This is a season to ask ourselves this fundamentally important question – What feeds your inner flames?
I wish for you all more inner light that burns from your deepest embers.