In any Jewish sacred space, our eyes will be drawn in some way upward to the ner tamid, the eternal light. A symbol of God’s eternality, nearly every Jewish sanctuary will have some kind of light, from a simple lamp or chalice to an elaborate sculpture, hanging above the ark. In parashat Tzav, we find one of the many descriptions of the Eternal flame, the fire that is supposed to burn at the altar. In Leviticus chapter 6 verse 6 we are told that a fire should be kept burning “tamid”; that is, always, and not be allowed to go out. On face value, it appears to be a prohibition against letting the fire dwindle and the embers turn to ash. And, in fact, that is how Rashi (among others) understand this mitzvah. In fact, he sees it as the violation of TWO commandments: that it should be kept burning, and should not go out.
The Sefat Emet sees this fire as, in fact, the fire of love for God that cannot go out. “In the soul of every Jew there lies a hidden point that is aflame with love of God, a fire that cannot be put out. Even though ‘it may not go out’ refers to a prohibition, it is also a promise.”
So which is it? Is this a prohibition or a promise? Is the focus on the mitzvah of keeping the fire lit or rather a reminder that the real fire—the fire of love—can never truly go out?
I believe the answer can be found in the way we respond to those with disabilities.
So much of our work is toward advocacy: for better laws, better protections in schools and the workplace, better access in synagogues and camps. That work is never complete. There will always be those who want to cut corners, people who don’t see it as a big deal that some element or experience is inaccessible, or still insist on using the R word as if it isn’t a bigoted epithet. That work can never cease.[Tweet “It comes from a deep love for human beings and a recognition that we are all God’s creatures, equally.”]
At the same time, we need to ask ourselves what fuels that work? What is the motivation for such engagement? My hope is that it comes from a deep love for human beings and a recognition that we are all God’s creatures, equally. So, when we see a student’s needs dismissed, their capabilities minimized, we should burn with a desire to include and empower.
There is more to this fire. The Sefat Emet goes on to say that the inner fire is there to consume our sins; that our distracted thoughts burn up and are purified. So it is with us. When we engage in our work and see accessibility as a chore, or those with disabilities as not normal but different (“diversity is other people”), when we don’t see the inherent value of each person regardless of their needs, then it doesn’t matter how well-meaning we may be, we fail.
In our work we must burn with fire: the fire of love for our brothers and sisters, a fire that cleanses our intentions and reminds us that the work must always remind us of the humanity of others. And that fire must continuously burn—for advocacy, for empowerment, for accessibility. It’s only when we do that can we truly say the fire is eternal, and shall not go out.
Yair Robinson is the senior rabbi of Congregation Beth Emeth of Wilmington, Delaware.