Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36)
This Shabbat is called “Shabbat Hagadol” – the “Great Sabbath”. Many have tried to infuse meaning into this special name. Some associated the name with the great event that occurred as the Jewish people prepared to leave the Land of Egypt. They mustered up the courage to tie sacrificial lambs to their bedposts as the Egyptians watched, incredulously, appalled that these Jewish slaves could treat their gods with such contempt, for all to see.
Others associate the name with a verse from the Haftarah heralding the advent of the awesome, fearful day of the coming of Hashem. Another explanation suggests that our rabbis decided to call this Shabbat “Hagadol” because on this day, the greatest local rabbi – usually the Chief Rabbi of the City – would deliver a sermon on the laws of the approaching holiday – Passover. However, the parsha, Tzav, itself, deals with far less festive matters.
Last week, the Torah portion dealt with the world of sacrifices from the vantage point of the person performing the sacrifices. There, the emphasis was on the sublime spirit embodied in that individual. It was a spirit yearning to draw closer to the warmth emanating from and toward Hashem.
Parshat Tzav, however, discusses the flip side of the coin: the priests working in the Mishkan, who needed to tend to the masses flooding the gates of the structure, perform the sacrificial rites, and afterwards, deal with everything else. It goes without saying that piles of skins, bones and other organs taken from sacrificed animals must have amassed.
Just imagine what must have transpired in the Temple during the three festivals, and particularly on the first night of Passover, as hundreds of thousands arrive to offer their holiday sacrifices. Our rabbis describe an enormous pool of blood that formed in the azarah at that time. There was enough to submerge the priests’ feet! Not a comfortable place for vegetarians, needless to say. Someone needed to keep the area clean and tidy – after all, this was the House of Hashem. And this is where this week’s story begins.
The priests’ first task of the morning was to “… lift out the ashes into which the fire has consumed the burnt offering upon the altar, and put them down next to the altar.” In other words, the meat of the sacrificial animals that needed to be burnt on the altar was set on fire at night.
At dawn, the priests would be required to take a portion of the ashes formed when the meat was burned, and transfer it to the eastern side of the altar, to beautify the altar, to prevent too much ash from collecting on the altar, or to enhance the fire of the altar, as too much ash would prevent the fire from progressing properly.
Next, the priests would change their clothes, and take all of the ashes left on the altar outside of the Temple area altogether. This is the avodah of the priests. Not particularly glamorous work.
This brings us to something that bothers us about how Parshat Tzav commences. Couldn’t the Torah have begun with a description of the wondrous rites the priests had performed when the sacrifices were brought – such as the sprinkling of the blood, or the burning of the organs of the eaten offerings?
Instead, the Torah prefaces the priests’ lofty service with a few technical procedures designed to keep the area clean. What priest would want to begin his day like this? Perhaps, the Torah wants to teach us that we cannot attain the highest levels of spirituality if our hearts and morals aren’t pure.
The perfection of man’s inequities takes precedence over the dreams we spin, which have no foundation in life’s realities. A person who begins the day making his surroundings more aesthetic – in this case, a priest dealing with the altar’s appearance and the quality of the fire on the altar – will eventually seek more spiritual cleanliness and holiness for himself. The priest understands and teaches us the precept that aesthetics and cleanliness are a fundamental part of a person’s quality of life, even if that person doesn’t recite Tehillim (Psalms) while working.
This might also tie into the feverish preparations we all make as the Passover holiday approaches. Anyone with a head on his shoulders understands that freedom and remembrance are intrinsically tied to the extent to which we clean out every nook and cranny of our homes. Jews are now waging an all-out war against chametz, dust, and just about everything in between.
We suddenly understand what level of mental and physical cleanliness we are all required to attain. We discover that our rabbis implored us to wash our hands before prayer, immediately after we wake up, to instill in us an appreciation for cleanliness, in all its forms, before we begin our daily routines.
This demand for maintaining cleanliness is one required, first and foremost, of the priests serving Hashem. After all, if the mighty have fallen – what of the rank and file? Therefore, in spite of all of the trials and tribulations the priests must withstand, they will need to complete their tasks with dignity. It is for good reason that the parsha begins with the word tzav. Our rabbis tell us that the Torah only uses this type of rhetoric when it wants to have us work faster.
Why, however, would it need to make the priests work faster? Is it because of the dirt that adhered to the priestly vestments? Perhaps the work itself wasn’t terribly attractive, so those performing it needed to be rushed. When our leaders assume their important roles, they will remember that the fulfillment of any vision begins with the internal and external cleanliness of the issues for which they are responsible.
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