Tzav: Leave the Light On - the Eish Tamid and Mood-Dependent Behavior



One of the ways in which my patients (and I) tend to get stuck most often is in the notion that productivity, achievement, and effectiveness depend on one’s mood. If I had a dollar for every time I heard the phrase, “I just didn’t feel like it” or some iteration thereof – well, I’d have a lot of dollars. We’ve all been there, of course. How many times have you had to wake up for work or school in the morning, or pack a lunch, or cook a meal, or make a phone call, or complete some task or assignment, and had the thought, “I really don’t feel like doing this right now”? Have you ever been “in the mood” to clean a toilet or make a dentist appointment or pick a sick child up early from school (for the fifth time that month)? I didn’t think so. And yet, you’ve done it.


Though therapeutic approaches like DBT target emotions and seek to help people increase positive emotional experiences in their lives, the reality is that we are NOT always “feeling it.” Often the work of therapy becomes about targeting mood dependent behaviors, those things we do as a direct result of how we feel in the moment. Targeting mood dependent behaviors means decreasing the frequency with which people act ineffectively or harmfully because they are upset, sad, or distressed, and increasing functional, effective, growth-oriented behaviors, even and especially when one is not feeling like doing them.


Though there may be times when you are in the mood to get up, go to work, help your kids with their homework, exercise, get on a Zoom call or go grocery shopping, there will also be plenty of times that you are not. In fact, aside from mundane tasks, this is also true of enjoyable and pleasurable activities. Sometimes you are in the mood to read or taking a relaxing bath or plan a trip with friends. Sometimes, you’re not even in the mood to do something enjoyable. And yet, you must.


One important buffer against mood dependent behavior is having consistency and routine. When behaviors that you know are effective and help you function optimally are a daily or regular part of your life, you have a greater chance of doing those things even when you’re not feeling much like doing anything. As such, therapists will often suggest that patients struggling with mood dependent behaviors schedule in specific activities that are pleasurable and enjoyable, as well as tasks that are required for basic functioning. In addition to being mindful of our mood and our urges to do or not do what our emotions tell us, making sure that we have a routine that lends itself to what we need to live our best lives helps to prevent us from self-sabotage.


The concept of mood dependent behaviors is not only applicable to optimal functioning and psychological well-being; it is also at the core of the inner workings of our spiritual world. As we’ve discussed previously, Rav Wolbe describes that there are Yimei Ahava and Yimei Sinah in our Avodas Hashem. Sometimes, we are feeling it, and sometimes, we decidedly are not. And, even so, somehow we must continue to have a connection with Hashem and maintain a routine or Seder in our spiritual growth and religious practice.


In Parshas Tzav, describing the specific Mitzvos relevant to Karbanos and the Avodah in the Mishkan, Hashem commands about the Mizbeiach (6:5), “V’HaEish al ha’mizbeiach tukad bo lo sichbeh,” the fire that burns on the Mizbeiach should not be extinguished. In the very next pasuk (6:6), this idea is reiterated, “eish tamid tukad al ha’mizbeiach, lo sichbeh,” an eternal, constant light must be kept lit on the Mizbeach, and it cannot be put out. Rashi (ibid.) notes that to call the flame “eish tamid” implies that it is meant to be permanent, so to also add “lo sichbeh,” that it cannot be extinguished, seems redundant. Furthermore, it is already a bit redundant to have these two pesukim one after the other – certainly we get the idea the first time! What is the significance of the eternal flame on the Mizbeiach, and why the emphasis on not having the flame go out?


To add to this question, Ramban clarifies that there are multiple Mitzvos here. One is a commandment to the Kohanim to always be sure that there is enough wood on the Mizbeiach to keep the fire going and prevent it from going out, rendering the flame an “eish tamid tukad” an eternal flame that is lit. The second part of the Mitzvah is a negative commandment, to not extinguish the flame.


The Netziv (HaAmek Davar 6:6) further expands our question by adding a clarifying point. He explains that the pasuk is redundant in order to specify that even when there is no Karban being brought and no actual Avodah is taking place, the flame must still continue to burn on the Mizbeiach. The Netziv’s commentary implies that one might think the flame has to be perpetually ignited only as long as Karbanos are being actively brought, but that is not the case. Furthermore, in the Gemara Yerushalmi (Yuma 4:6) R’ Yehoshua ben Levi adds that this means the flame must always be lit, even on Shabbos, and even when the Kohanim were in a state of Tumah. Clearly, the Eish Tamid is critically important in all states and at all times. But what would be the function of this flame if no Karban is being brought?


Perhaps we can synthesize these commentaries and understand the idea of Eish Tamid as follows. R’ Shneur Zalman of Liadi, also known as the Baal HaTanya, explains that the significance of the Eish Tamid is in parallel to the spiritual life of a Jew. We must be in a constant state of striving for spiritual connection and closeness to G-d, Kirvas Elokim. Karbanos, from the word “karov,” are meant to forge that closeness in a remarkably tangible way. Today, we do not have sacrifices, but we do have prayer, as well as countless other Mitzvos we can perform daily to connect to Hashem. And yet, of course, we are not always in the mood to perform these Mitzvos! The Eish Tamid teaches us the importance of consistency, of incorporating religious and spiritual thoughts and behaviors into our daily lives as much as possible, without lengthy breaks to deter us or stunt our growth momentum.


Sometimes, we do not feel like doing Mitzvos. We may not be in the mood to Daven, make Brachos, set aside time to learn, or even to celebrate certain holidays. Sometimes, we do not even feel worthy of that connection – perhaps we feel Tamei, impure. And yet, the Eish Tamid was lit even in a state of impurity. Sometimes, we may find that we only truly want to engage in the Karban-level activities of Jewish life – the major holidays, big gatherings or rare, inspiring spiritual experiences – and we have less patience or emotional bandwidth for the day to day practice of Judaism. And yet, as the Netziv notes, the Eish Tamid was not meant to only stay lit when Karbanos were being brought. So, too, we must find ways to remain spiritually engaged and keep the flames of our souls ignited even in the absence of large scale religious experiences.


As Purim fades in our rearview mirror, it may be tempting to take a break from spirituality until the next major event, namely Pesach. With the joy and excitement of Purim behind us, we may not feel like engaging in the more mundane daily Mitzvos in which we are obligated. And yet, it is precisely when we are struggling to decrease mood dependent behavior that we must be sure to have consistency and constancy, finding ways to fuel the flames of spiritual growth and connection even we are not “feeling it.”


This week, consider what you can do or schedule in to increase or enhance your emotional and spiritual well-being. What are some things (specific Mitzvos or even just daily life activities) that you can be doing but have been struggling to do because you may just not be emotionally connected to those behaviors? Whether scheduling in positive activities or choosing one Mitzvah to add to your daily routine, tap into the power of the eternal fire of the Mizbeiach, and ensure that the inner light of your soul that seeks to guide you can never, ever go out.

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