Do not let the holy fire go out in your heart or soul


Shabbat HaGadol

Leviticus 6:1-8:36

Malachi 3:4-24

I have always had difficulty with the Book of Leviticus. I understand that it is Torah, that it has much to teach. But the detailed instructions about the ritual and sacrificial system have always left me feeling dazed and undernourished. So it delighted me when I learned that this week's parashah, filled with directions to the priests about the sacrificial system, is one of the best places in the Torah to find Chassidic wisdom on the spiritual life.

Our parashah begins with precise directives as to how the olah, or burnt offering, is to be carried out. "This is the ritual of the olah: 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 going on it" (Leviticus 6:2).

Pretty dry stuff. Until we allow our imaginations to play with the text, to imagine its meaning in our own lives. One rabbinic tradition understands that the "fire on the altar" described in our verse refers not only to the fire used to burn sacrifices in the desert sanctuary, but to the fire of Torah in the heart of every Jew. Now the verse gets really interesting. It has been transformed from a technical instruction to the priests at a particular time in history to a word of inspiration to all of us, encouraging us to allow Torah to fill us with its endless light and warmth.

The Chassidic commentators take this leap of imagination one step further, identifying the fire on the altar with the fire of spiritual passion in the soul. Read in this way, our apparently simple verse speaks to the very heart of spiritual life. It is a resounding directive: Do not allow the light to go out in your soul. And it is a promise: If you tend this fire, it will burn within you endlessly, filling your life with meaning, vitality and holiness.

The Sefat Emet understands it this way: "This is the purpose of human worship. Each day a new light comes down upon those who serve God…Something of this light should remain imprinted on the heart throughout day and night; 'it may not go out'" (Lev. 6:6).

In this Chassidic master's deft spiritual imagination, the fire on the altar has become the fire in the soul. The ritual work of the priests in ancient times has become our own daily work of serving Life and awakening to the Divine Presence.

But there is more: "When this is the case, whatever thoughts and doubts that arise upon the heart will be burned up by the inner flame of this imprint. 'It is the burnt-offering upon its altar,' as the holy Zohar says, evil thoughts are consumed in this fire." ("The Language of Truth," translated and interpreted by Arthur Green, pages 153, 154.)

Now the text becomes an instruction manual, guiding us through the complex landscape of our inner lives. The Chassidic master knows that, unlike the sacrificial altar, on which only perfect gifts are placed, many things fall on the "altar" at the core of the soul. Our doubts, our fears, our hurts, our anger, all sooner or later find their way to that altar. What are we to do when the human "garbage" obscures the holy place within? According to the Zohar (and the Chassidic tradition that follows it), we are to let all of that human stuff burn on the altar, and let it rise to God, leaving behind only the holy fire, the soul in its pure goodness and passion.

This is an exquisite instruction for working with the torrent of thoughts and feelings that moves through us, creating such storm clouds that we cannot even see the sacred place inside us or feel the warmth of the soul's fire. The Chassidic tradition here gives us an extraordinary visualization to help us let go of that which is wounded, doubting or mean-spirited within us. When that garbage comes into your awareness, inwardly place it on the altar, and imagine letting it rise to the heavens. Do this over and over again, as you will doubtless need to, but keep the pure fire of spirit burning on the altar of your heart, so that you, like the priests of old, can do your holy work.

When we burn our chametz this Wednesday morning, may we burn along with it some of what has blocked us from the work that is ours to do in the world.

As we burn our chametz, may the obstacles to peace and justice be removed from the world.

May this Pesach, celebrating the spring and our people's experience of redemption, bring us closer to a world redeemed from hatred and war. Amen.

Rabbi Amy Eilberg
Rabbi Amy Eilberg

Rabbi Amy Eilberg serves as a spiritual director, peace educator and justice activist, and teacher of Mussar. More information on her work can be found at