Parshat Tzav for Conversion Candidates

I feel a little guilty that I don’t often address the weekly parsha (Torah reading) in my blog.  Most often, it’s because there are so many wonderful parsha commentaries out there that I don’t feel I have anything unique to share.  Other times it’s because the really deep insights I’d like to share only come on Shabbos and after Shabbos I feel like it’s a little odd to share thoughts on LAST week’s parsha when most people have already moved on to the current week for study.

This week, though, I feel like the Parsha has a special significance to those in the conversion process.  This week’s parsha, Tzav, is a continuation of last week’s parsha that spent quite a bit of time focused on the different offerings that would be given in the Mishkan (traveling tabernacle that served as a Temple for the Jews while they wandered the desert).  This week, though, it talks specifically about the role the Priests and the altar had to play, which involved keeping a fire burning on the altar at all times, ready for sacrifices.  The fire was never to be let to go out.

When we first moved to Alaska, I was intimidated by the wildness and determined that our family enjoy what the outdoors here had to offer, but I also wanted us to be safe.  I knew these woods and mountains were a bit more rugged and dangerous than anywhere else I’d ever hiked or camped, so I signed up for classes to learn basic survival skills.  I learned that in Alaska, the biggest threat of death from hypothermia comes not in the cold dark winter…but in the summer.  It’s more likely that someone will die of hypothermia then because they don’t expect to be cold and they’ll get wet and not have the proper gear to warm themselves.

We were taught that the first thing you do whenever anything seems to have gone off plan…is build a fire.

There are a few reasons for this.  For one, building a fire builds up your confidence and gives you an emotional lift.  As human beings, fire is something that we alone have mastered and no other animal has.  Sitting by a fire is comforting beyond just the warmth it provides.  That flame tells us we have the power to change nature to serve us.  It gives us the confidence to use other skills to survive.  It also can help other people find us.  The smoke created by the fire may be what leads rescuers to our camp.  Of course, it also provides much needed warmth and can help dry out wet clothes.  We went through a dozen or more different ways to start fires and each was fun and had its own challenges.

Fire, though, must be fed to stay alive.

I remember being taught how to make the kind of fire that will help you survive extreme cold and the amount of wood needed to sustain it through a dark, cold night.  The longer the darkness and cold, the more wood you’d need to gather and the harder it would be to keep that fire going.

The journey to Orthodox Jewish Conversion can often be a long cold night.

Just like there are many ways to start a fire, many people come to conversion from different paths.  They’re often full of enthusiasm, full of joy…full of FIRE.  They’ve finally found a truth they were searching for so hard.  The sparks have caught the tinder and they can see flames.  As early conversion candidates, we smile, rubbing our hands in front of our small fledgeling fires, congratulating ourselves.  What we often don’t realize, though, is that the real work is in gathering the fuel to keep that fire going through the long night.

I’ve belonged to online conversion groups for years and over time, patterns emerge.  Those who seem to succeed are those who are willing to go further out in search of what’s needed to keep the fire going.  These are the conversion candidates who are able and willing to move as needed and who seek out sources for study.  They aren’t afraid to venture far from their comfort zones to find teachers, books, or even a supportive community.  They gather these necessary resources like dry logs, carrying them back to their small flames and they draw on those resources when the fire sputters, feeding it as the night grows longer.

Those who concentrate more on excuses as to why they shouldn’t need to go gathering…they tend to fade away into the darkness or, perhaps more sadly, their flame goes out in an angry gust of wind as they vent their frustration at the unfairness of the path.  Those who have tended their fires longer realize while it may feel unfair at times, the coldness, darkness, and length of the night isn’t personal…it just is.  You have to go through the night to reach dawn and no one really knows what it’s really like at someone else’s fire.  Maybe it looks easier or harder for them from a distance, but you can really only know how warm your own hands are.

I’m sure it wasn’t always easy for the Priests to keep the fire going on the altar, either.  I can’t imagine there being many large logs in the desert and feeding a fire with small brush takes a lot of tending.  It would have been so hot during the day in the desert and I’ve heard that desert nights can be very cold.  The Priests of the Mishkan also would have learned early on how important going out and gathering the resources needed to keep the flame going was.  I’m sure sometimes feeding the fire became tedious, even frustrating.  After time, it might even have become difficult to see the bigger reasons behind tending that fire.  When they first began, I’m sure they were filled with awe and felt privileged to be the ones to keep the flame going, but over time?  It would have taken work to hold on to that awe and wonder.

And so it is with conversion.  It takes work to keep reminding myself of why I need to keep moving forward along the path.  I can’t know when dawn will come, but I already know that while the day will be different than the night, the flame will still need tending all the same.  After conversion, there may be times it’s even harder to hold on to that enthusiasm and even more tempting to back off mitzvot.  After all, we’re past the night, right?  The test is over, isn’t it?

More people die of hypothermia in the day, when the sun is shining because of that sort of thinking.

So, the wise gather up the fuel needed to keep the fire burning, day or night.

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