steady-flame patience

Written by  rabbi russ resnik

art-nertamidWe sometimes think of patience as a passive virtue, similar to endurance; the kind of patience that enables us to perform a repetitive task, to get through setbacks and challenges, or to wait for an answer to prayer without getting irritated or discouraged. Such patience is a virtue, as they say, but patience includes a more active response as well, not just enduring various trials, but maintaining focus and intensity through them all.

Parashat Tsav (Lev. 6:1-8:36) provides an image for this sort of patience. It opens with the command to keep the fire upon the altar burning continually. Indeed, the command is so important that the Torah gives it three times, in 6:2, 6:5, and finally 6:6. “A permanent fire shall be kept burning upon the altar; it shall not go out!” The flame can’t just be lit and then observed or protected from the wind that might blow it out; it must be continually tended and fed to serve as a steady flame. “And the priest shall burn wood upon it baboker baboker—morning by morning” (Lev. 6:5).

This priestly task represents the active kind of patience, which empowers us not just to endure, but to persevere regardless of immediate outcome or response.

I recently met the parents of a teenage girl with cerebral palsy who is taking college classes online as she finishes up her high school degree. She has to type her college papers with just one finger of one hand, but she refuses to ask for the extended deadline that she could get because of her disability. The parents said that when their daughter recently met one of her online teachers, the teacher was amazed to see her in an electric wheelchair, because she had no idea she was disabled at all. This kid isn’t practicing the passive sort of patience, but the steady-flame variety.

The Torah provides a clue to developing this steady-flame patience. It calls the fire on the altar aish tamid and the light of the menorah in the tabernacle ner tamid, the eternal light (Exodus 27:20). Rashi comments that the fire of the aish tamid provides the flame to light the ner tamid. We use the same name today for the light over the ark of the Torah in our synagogues – ner tamid, the eternal light, representing the steady flame of Torah. The God of Israel provides the light of Torah, and he assigns to us the task of keeping the light burning. This task, of course, is a prime example of the positive sort of patience. We’re not just to hang on to the Word (although sometimes it feels like that’s about all we can do), but to actively learn and apply it throughout all sorts of conditions. Practicing steady-flame patience with the flame of Scripture equips us to practice it in all the situations we’ll face in life.

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