A number of years ago, 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 kept us excited, inspired, passionate, and creative in our work as congregational rabbis.

Someone read this blog from years ago today (as I can see what blogs are read and re-read) and reminded me of it. The question about which I spoke then is still relevant today, and so I updated my response for these times and offer my thoughts again here.

This question is, of course, not only for rabbis. It is 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 is a question I have asked myself frequently since I retired in 2019 and throughout this horrid political environment and in the age of Covid that has brought massive death, loss, and long-Covid debilitation for many.

When I first wrote about the question, the Torah portion that week was Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36). At the beginning of the reading is a relevant verse:

“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 interpreted the sacrifices (korbanot – the root of the verb means “coming close”) as metaphor. The altar can refer to the human heart, and the fire that burnt in the altar can refer to the fires of excitement and inspiration that burn 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 years ago who studied Torah with me on Friday mornings, and to my family and friends at our Passover Seder that year. 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 learned Torah with me each week said that engaging with the ancient, medieval, and modern texts grounded 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, faith, culture, and history;
  • My Seder family and friends said that whenever they read fine literature and poetry and then wrote themselves, or when they listened to and played musical instruments, visited museums and galleries and created art, worked in their gardens and cooked creatively, the embers in their hearts were stoked;
  • Two people mentioned that the mastery they attained in their work inspired them to learn more, teach others, publish, and carry on the work;
  • A recovering alcoholic said that daily prayer and meditation brought him back to his most natural self;
  • Many said that helping others and engaging in social justice work connected them to community and to higher ideals that inspired and sustained them;
  • Several said that sitting quietly in a favorite place renewed them;
  • Many spoke of the love they feel for their spouses, partners, children, grandchildren, parents, brothers, sisters, extended family, and friends who were the embers that fed their inner flames.

The important question again is this – What feeds your inner flames?

I wish for you all, as we approach the Hanukah season beginning next week, that your inner light will be rekindled from that which burns within from your deepest embers.

A pre-Hag Hanukah sameach.