Always (Sometimes) There
Parashat Tzav opens with an image of constancy, the fire on the altar that always burns, never extinguished (Leviticus 6:2: אש תמיד תוקד על המזבח לא תכבה). The unextinguished fire is not just practical, burning sacrifices throughout the day and fats throughout the night; it represents an ongoing and unwavering connection between the people and God.1 Yet, an honest religious life involves flux, times when we do feel strong connection and times when we don’t. The dance between faith and doubt, presence and absence, can also emerge in close relationships with others. How can we savor moments of connection while acknowledging real gaps, even extended gaps? How can we build relationships that integrate these experiences of alienation, rather than shutting down or pretending the gaps don’t exist?
Upon closer look, the connotation of the word tamid (“always”) is not necessarily as constant as the image of the constant fire depicts. In some places, the Torah uses the word tamid to refer to something that is ongoing, but in intervals rather than continuous. For example, the Torah uses the word tamid to describe the lamps of the menorah (להעלת נר תמיד), even though they didn’t burn constantly, but were only lit at night, to burn while it was dark.2 In our parashah, eish tamid obviously means "constant," as it is explicitly paired with the phrase “it shall not be extinguished.” Yet, the range of meanings of the word tamid exposes a provocative complexity: there can be a tamid that is truly constant, and there can be a tamid that holds the power of constancy even as it is nonetheless intermittent. We might experience this kind of “intermittent always” in various parts of our lives. Maybe our kids feel we are “always” there for them, even if they only see us at the beginning and end of each day. Or we are strengthened by the existence of a good friend, even if we go months without speaking. Or we continue to feel the abiding presence of someone we love even after they have passed away.
This meaning of tamid as intermittent becomes particularly poignant when the fire in the mikdash (sanctuary) no longer burns at all.3 In a liturgical dirge for Tisha B’Av, one medieval poet draws on the imagery of the fire burning constantly on the altar to characterize the inner connection and passion felt during the triumphant moment of the exodus from Egypt (אש תוקד בקרבי). He devolves into lament as he shifts to the exile from Jerusalem, climaxing in his articulation that God became distance and then disappeared altogether (רחק ממנו והנה איננו). Losing this symbol of constant connection, we might fear total loss or abandonment. What do we do when this fire that “shall never be extinguished” goes out? In our own lives, how do we avoid devolving into a sense of total abandonment when a presence so anchoring and orienting disappears?
One approach is substitution or adaptation: we try to recreate a constant sense of connection through something else. The first mishnah in Berakhot follows this path, relating the mitzvah of Shema to the constant fire on the altar. According to the Sages’ opinion, the evening Shema can be recited up until dawn, since the fats were burned on the altar all night. In this view, prayer encodes the kind of constant connection the fire on the altar offered, even throughout the darkest parts of night. Yet this is an imperfect approximation. There is no way we will actually be in a state of prayer as constantly as the fire.
Instead of reaching to substitute for the ongoing connection that was lost, we can embrace the intermittent meaning of tamid: a sense of everpresence that endures through breaks and rupture. Yehudah Amichai, in his collection of love poems, brings us to this kind of real and rugged love:
אלהי הנשמה שנתת בי היא עשן
משרפית תמיד של זכרונות אהבה
אנו נולדים ומיד מתחילים לשרוף
עד שהעשן כעשן תכלה.
My God, the soul you have given me is smoke
From the constant burning of memories of love
We are born and immediately start to burn
Until the smoke, like smoke, dissipates.
Amichai emphasizes the power of love as an animating force in our existence, but frames this through memory. Our souls are not fueled by present interactions, but by long gone moments of love that leave a formative impression and continue to fuel our existence now. Beyond a reference to romances come and gone, the religious subtexts of his poem invite us to reflect on relationship more broadly, including relationship with God, where we feel ongoing presence within a reality of absence.4
In this picture, we can see mitzvot as practices that encode “memories of love” even when our sense of God (and God’s love) does not feel constantly present.5 When Maimonides categorizes the mitzvot in his comprehensive collection of Jewish law, the Mishneh Torah, he places the Shema and tefillah, among others, in Sefer Ha-Ahavah (Book of Love). This title is his own creative invention; there is no order of the Mishnah called “Love.”6 Maimonides’ categorization is nothing less than a claim that love is a critical philosophical root in our practice of mitzvot.7 The rituals from tzitzit to food blessings are framed as an expression of constant awareness and love for God (כְּדֵי לִזְכֹּר אֶת הַבּוֹרֵא תָּמִיד).8 If we apply Amichai to Maimonides, we might say that, if we aren’t “feeling the love” from God in a given moment, these mitzvot cultivate “memories” or residual impressions of God’s love for us. We learn to thrive on these disconnected and fragile impressions of love when we can’t access something more robust.
Personally, I came to tangibly experience this kind of intermittent yet nourishing love in a difficult pregnancy, where a problem in the umbilical cord meant that blood flow was not pulsing as it should, but actually stopped at times. The blood flow was intermittent, not constant. This kind of pregnancy sometimes terminates—there was a fear that the gaps would lead to total disappearance—but sometimes the fetus is able to hang on and get what they need. I learned from this baby what it means to take a hard look at divine love and know that it might not “show up” in the consistent way we want and think we need. Instead, we accept the imperfect picture of reality, soak up what we can from the fragile yet potent reservoirs we can access, and trust that we have the strength to make our way.
The constant orienting fire on the altar yields to a more subtle practice of Torah and mitzvot as “memories of love,” intermittent connection points that fuel a relationship with God, even as God may not necessarily feel present in an ongoing way. Mitzvot bring us back to the experience of Sinai, or perhaps some other formative moment for us, (re)creating a sense of closeness and intimacy that cuts through absence and longing. This is the formative power of tamid that is not the same as continual connection. As we navigate our religious lives and our close relationships with others, we can draw on this model of tamid to sustain us through challenges and loss that might otherwise be overwhelmingly disruptive. Intermittent “memories of love” can fuel the constant fire inside us.
1 For more on this theme, see the essay on Parashat Tetzaveh by my colleague and teacher Rabbi Shai Held, “Between Ecstacy and Constancy: The Dynamics of Covenantal Commitment,” available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/between-ecstasy-and-constancy.
2 The Torah describes the daily morning and afternoon sacrifices as tamid even though they are brought at discrete times, not continually. The Torah describes the tzitz as bringing atonement tamid (Exodus 28:38), even as the kohen gadol does not wear it constantly (whether the tzitz continues to function while not being worn is the subject of a debate between R. Yehudah and R. Shimon on Talmud Bavli Yoma 7b and Pesahim 77a). But tamid can also mean something constant and continual, such as in the description of the shewbread on the table in the mikdash (Exodus 25:30), where our sages go to great lengths to describe that there was never a moment without bread, even in the act of transferring new loaves (Mishnah Menahot 11:7).
3 There is some doubt whether the author of this alphabetical acrostic is R. Yehudah Ha-Levi, R. Avraham ibn Ezra, or someone else. The full lines of the phrases quoted are: “אֵשׁ תּוּקַד בְּקִרְבִּי בְּהַעֲלוֹתִי עַל לְבָבִי, בְּצֵאתִי מִמִּצְרָיִם. קִינִים אָעִירָה, לְמַעַן אַזְכִּירָה, בְּצֵאתִי מִירוּשָׁלָיִם/A flame shall burn within me, when I raise on my heart, my leaving Egypt. And I will awaken lamentations, so that I shall remember, my leaving Jerusalem...רָחַק מִמֶּנּוּ, וְהִנֵּה אֵינֶנּוּ, בְּצֵאתִי מִירוּשָׁלָיִם/[God] distanced from us, and behold was gone! Upon leaving Jerusalem.”(translation by Rabbi Gabriel Kretzmer-Seed).
4 The first two words draw on a piece of liturgy from the morning blessings. The phrase שריפת תמיד evokes the burning of the daily sacrifice. The final phrase adapts a line from high holiday liturgy in the expanded third blessing (Kedushah) in the Musaf Amidah: וכל הרשעה כולה כעשן תכלה.
5 For an analysis of the meaning of “mitzvah” that moves far beyond “commandment” into the realm of love and care, see Rabbi Jason Rubenstein, “What are mitzvot? A perspective from the ethics of care,” in David Birnbaum and Martin Cohen (editors), Search for Meaning (2018), pp. 453-482. An earlier version of this essay can be found in the form of a shiur on the Hadar website, available here: https://www.hadar.org/torah-resource/who-says-i-have.