Congregation B'nai Israel

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Finding the Space Between

Rabbi Sarah Marion
April 4, 2020
Parshat Tzav
Finding the Space Between

When I think about the altar that is described in this week’s Torah portion – the altar that our ancestors used to burn their sacrificial offerings – I imagine this altar looking something like the fire pit that is in my backyard. Our fire pit is made up of about ten square stones, set in a circle, with two more stories of square stones, piled on top. It’s simple, unassuming design reminds me that it doesn’t take much to start and sustain a fire.

In the Marion house, it is my husband, Seth, who is the master of all fire-related activities. From his childhood camping trips, Seth knows the exact formula: the precise amount of wood, with the optimal moisture to dryness ratio; the perfect number of sticks – not too many, but not too few – and the very careful and intentional way of placing each stick in the spaces between. The best fires, in our house, start strong and remain strong for at least 4 s’mores and 3 bedtime stories.

The temple priest, as well, must have known the exact recipe for creating and maintaining a fire – because we read, in this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tzav, that not only was the priest responsible for igniting the fire on the altar – the fire that was to be used to burn the sacrificial offerings – but, also, we read that it was the priest’s ultimate duty to ensure that the fire on the altar never went out. The command here, is clear. We read that,

“Every morning, the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it; and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offering. A perpetual fire – in Hebrew, an “ish tamid” – shall be kept burning on the alter, never to go out.” (Leviticus 6:1-6).

An “ish tamid:” a perpetual, enduring, everlasting fire – just like the ner tamid: the perpetual, enduring, everlasting flame above our sanctuaries, and within our hearts.

What makes a fire burn? Surely, the priest had to have known the precise amount of sticks and wood to keep it going day after day after day. But there is something else – something that the poet, Judy Brown, so beautifully illustrates in her poem, called “Fire:”

What makes a fire burn
is space between the logs,
a breathing space.
Too much of a good thing,
too many logs
packed in too tight
can douse the flames
almost as surely
as a pail of water would.
So building fires
requires attention
to the spaces in between,
as much as to the wood.

When we are able to build
open spaces
in the same way
we have learned
to pile on the logs,
then we can come to see how
it is fuel, and absence of the fuel
together, that make fire possible.

We only need to lay a log
lightly from time to time.
A fire
simply because the space is there,
with openings
in which the flame
that knows just how it wants to burn
can find its way.

These days, I’ve been thinking a lot about the “spaces between.” And, these days, I’ve been thinking a lot about what we need to keep our own, inner fires burning – our inner fires of hope and strength and resolve to endure and withstand this nightmare.

Right now, we are, in so many ways – living and existing in the space between: the logs of the world as it once was are now firmly below us, and the logs of an indeterminate future are still above us, still not yet within arms reach.

There are some days, when my inner fire is ablaze with faith and determination – and, there are other days, when I feel that same fire dwindling down to a flicker, as I am overtaken by sadness, hopelessness and fear.

The space between – this is not any easy place to be.

The other day, I was talking to a member of our community, and he commented that he wakes up, every day, holding his breath. How ironic – and, yet, how true – that during this pandemic, this pandemic that, at its very core, is attacking our ability to breathe – we are, individually and collectively, holding our breath – fearful, worried, terrified, of where and how this virus will strike next.

Indeed, these days it is so easy to pile on the logs, one after the other. Logs of worry. Logs of fear. Logs of anxiety. Logs of helplessness. Logs of despair. And all of these logs are so real and so valid and so unavoidable. 

But, we also know a thing or two about fires. We know that if we pile on too much too quickly, they will quickly flicker and fade. The same is true for ourselves. If we pile on too much – if we pile on too much fear, too much anxiety, too much worry– we, too, will quickly burn ourselves out.

And so in order to keep ourselves going during these utterly unbelievable days – in order to keep our inner faith and hope ablaze – we, too, need to give ourselves room to breathe. Space to temporarily let go of the worries of the world.  For me, when I find myself getting sucked into the latest headlines – or when I tune into the endless rounds of press conferences that usually make me want to throw something at the tv – I can feel all the logs, beginning to pile on.

But when I turn off the tv, when I put down the headlines, when I force what I cannot control out of my mind, when I create space to appreciate the beauty and the blessings that are right here, right now… some of the weight is lifted – at least for a brief but wonderful and much needed moment.

Decades from now, when all of this is a distant memory, I imagine that our grandchildren, and their grandchildren, will want to know: what was it like, when a pandemic shut down the entire world? How did everyone manage during that unprecedented time? How did they learn to live in the “space between” the world as it was, and the world that was yet to come?

Someday, our logs from these days (pun intended) will be textbook and museum worthy relics – or, at the very least, they will be treasured keepsakes that our grandchildren and all of their grandchildren will turn to, for insight and for wisdom.

And our logs will constitute yet another chapter in the ongoing stories of human perseverance – the stories that began in our Torah and continue to unfold with each new generation. But, most beautifully, within each new chapter and each new story of perseverance that unfolds, the same, everlasting wisdom burns ever so brightly: Build and maintain an everlasting flame of faith and hope. Find the space between. And remember, always remember, to breathe.