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Parashat Tzav: A Matter of Time

Excerpted from Rabbi Aaron Goldscheider’s Torah United: Teachings on the Weekly Parasha from Rav Avraham Yitzchak HaKohen Kook, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, and the Chassidic Masters, co-published by OU Press and Ktav Publishing House

A Matter of Time

The opening mitzvah in Parashat Tzav is terumat ha-deshen, the removal of the ash, a simple ritual that commenced the Temple service every day. It was performed exclusively by a Kohen, who would ascend the outer altar’s ramp, remove a small volume of ash from the pyres, and carefully place it in a designated spot in the Temple precinct. This served the practical purpose of keeping the altar tidy, which maintained the dignity of the Temple and allowed the fires to burn more cleanly.

In keeping with his focus on our oft-forgotten “duties of the heart,” the venerable medieval philosopher Rabbi Bachya Ibn Pakudah in his Chovot ha-Levavot stated that this act was also for the Kohen. The Kohen was privileged to stand before God in the holy Temple as the representative of the entire nation, and therefore could develop inappropriate feelings of superiority:

As Scripture says of Aharon, in spite of the high dignity of his office: “He shall remove the ashes” (Leviticus 6:3) – the Creator obligated him to remove the ashes daily to induce lowliness and remove arrogance from his heart.

The menial chore of taking out the altar garbage was meant to humble the Kohen into being a pure oved Hashem, a servant of God.

Rebbe Simcha Bunim of Peshischa similarly taught that the Kohen’s day began with the lifting of the ashes to put his heart in the right place, by reminding him of the simple, this-worldly needs of the people he represented even in such a holy place. In God’s house, he was to lift up – to elevate – the common man. Too often those who rise to lofty positions become aloof and fail to relate to the struggles and pains experienced by “the little people,” and to raise them up with them.

The nineteenth-century champion of Orthodox Judaism in Germany, Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, found another psychological insight in this mitzvah. The ash reminds us of all the offerings brought the previous day. Removing it signals that it is a new day and we must again do what was incumbent upon us to do the day prior. We cannot rely on what was done yesterday. This recalls Rashi’s comment on “the Lord your God commands you today to observe these laws . . .” (Deuteronomy 26:16): “Every day you shall regard [the commandments] as if they are brand new, as if, on that very day, you have been commanded them.” In order to do this, we must let go of yesterday, and focus on the day ahead.

A fascinating interpretation of terumat ha-deshen arises from the question of its placement. Why doesn’t it appear in Parashat Vayikra, where all the sacrifices are elucidated? The second Ishbitzer Rebbe, Yaakov Leiner, explained that some things can be readily understood,  while others need time to be processed. A new idea forces us to rewire our neural networks, an obscure one takes time to wrap our head around. At times, we do not fully comprehend something until we sleep on it, as the human mind needs a period of relative inactivity to accomplish the processing for us and make it a part of ourselves. The sacrificial rite introduced in Parashat Vayikra was difficult for the Jewish people to wrap their heads around, and this remains true for us today as well. However, with time, a devoted heart, and an openness to absorb these truths, one can surely assimilate them into one’s very being. This is represented by terumat ha-deshen. When the sacrifices of the previous day have finished burning, their process is complete and one removes their ashes, an act that can be performed all night. Why at night? Because it represents the time when the mystifying is on some deep level demystified and absorbed.

The verse says, “Taste and see that God is good” (Psalms 34:9). Sometimes this proves challenging, as various Torah laws and practices defy our rational faculties or moral sensibilities. The sacrificial rite with its myriad details is a good example. Nevertheless, the rebbe taught that when we allow them to find a place within us, they will subconsciously become as beloved as any of God’s more consciously assimilable teachings.

One of the most outstanding Chassidic masters, the Kotzker Rebbe, made this very point. He was once asked, why do we say in the Shema that God’s words should be “upon ( עַל ) your heart” (Deuteronomy 6:6) and not “in (- בִּ) your heart”? “Of course they should be in your heart,” the rebbe replied, “but that is not always possible. At the very least, you can put them on your heart. They may sit there for a long time. But someday your heart will open, and if they are already on top of your heart, they can slip right in.”

We cannot always readily digest the Torah we learn. In the same way reaching one’s mature height is the product of years of silent growth, spiritual and emotional development slowly and immeasurably occurs beneath the surface. The key is to place the mitzvot “on our hearts.” When we recognize the nobility of the Torah’s directives and feel honored to be their recipient, we desire to taste God’s goodness. At that point, it is merely a matter of time.