Lighting A New Flame

Lighting A New Flame

Candlelighting: 6:55 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 6:1-8:36
Haftorah: Jeremiah 7:21-9:23
Havdalah: 7:55 p.m.

Though focused on the Mishkan (Tabernacle), Tzav has much to teach about relationships.

The portion opens with the kohanim’s daily sacrifices to be offered in the Mishkan: “The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body,” and take the ashes from the previous burnt offering on the altar. “Then take off his vestments, put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place” [Leviticus 6:3-4].

Every morning the kohen would commence his service with Terumat Hadeshen, the removal of the ashes. We might be perplexed by what almost seems like a role reversal straight out of the Purim megillah. Why would the kohanim, who lead and facilitate the spiritual connection between the people and God, be called upon to clean up from the night before?

In light of the massive construction project that created the Mishkan and the central role of the kohanim, collecting the ashes and cleaning off the altar sends a subtly powerful message to the kohanim about their role: Like Moses and our Patriarchs, the kohanim are intended to be spiritual leaders of — and among — the people, not over the people. By handling the ashes, these religious leaders humbly demonstrate that nothing is beneath them when it comes to serving the community.

Shifting the focus from the kohanim to the Tabernacle itself, the 13th-century Sefer HaChinuch believes that the ultimate purpose behind Terumat Hadeshen is to beautify the altar. He explains that with the ashes cleared away, the new flame has the best possible platform to shine brightly for all to see.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the 19th-century German sage, agrees that the external beautification of the altar is vital not just for its ritual enhancement, but also for its spiritual impact on the people as a whole. He asserts: “The start of every new day summons us to set out upon our task with full and fresh devotion as though we had never accomplished anything before. Woe to him… who does not begin the work of each new day as though if it were the very first day of his life’s work!”

According to Hirsch, this seemingly ordinary task has extraordinary reverberations on our lives. It is as if removing these sacred ashes ultimately enables each of us to light a new flame daily within our souls.

All of these interpretations help us appreciate the significance of the ritual associated with Terumat Hadeshen, but one key item must not be overlooked: the ashes themselves. The ashes are not trash. Since sacrifices are connected to the people’s individual and communal expressions of remorse, thanksgiving and innermost yearnings, the byproduct of these sacrifices still contain a degree of holiness. Like the broken Tablets placed in the Holy Ark alongside their complete counterparts, these sacred ashes are to be handled by the priests with the utmost respect, and brought to a designated place of purity and sanctity.

The lessons of Terumat Hadeshen extend beyond the Tabernacle into our homes today and forever. The cornerstones of a bayit ne’aman b’Yisrael (a strong Jewish home) are humility, a dedication to beautifying our lives through shared values, and an unending daily commitment to giving our all to our family, friends and community.

Tzav holds a special place in my heart because it coincides with my wedding anniversary weekend. At the chatan’s tisch, the groom’s table, I made a sincere effort to offer a dvar Torah while being interrupted repeatedly by festive heckling in the form of singing and l’chaims.

At the end of our wedding, one of our guests approached Julie and me with a simple plastic bag. Inside was the shattered glass that I had stomped on under the chupah. He wanted us to have these glass shards, lest they be thrown away. In his eyes, the glass was not trash, but rather a keepsake from this sacred day. 

These shards of glass remain on our breakfront to this day. Whenever I look at those shards of glass, I think about our wedding day and the meaningful message of the sacred ashes; ashes reminding us that our most meaningful relationships require daily renewal and attention. n

Rabbi Charles E. Savenor serves as the director of congregational education at Park Avenue Synagogue in New York.

For the Record: The credit line in the March 11 Sabbath column was inadvertently omitted. It should have read: Erin Leib Smokler serves as director of spiritual development at Yeshivat Maharat.

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