Torah text is inscribed upon the skin of a once-living creature. Such a creature was once asked to speak to God for us. Now it carries God’s message to us.
Tzav is the second portion of the Book of Leviticus. The tone is that of a policy and procedure manual. Not every Israelite had to understand the minutiae. They just had to present their appropriate beast since all categories of meaning were mediated by this system of sacrifice managed by the sons of Aaron. The priests were specialists in this technical language of ritual, and this distinction from the other tribes of Israel was an aspect of their holiness.
Oddly, the first regulation of Tzav concerns the end of the process. Each morning the priest performs what the Talmud calls the mitzvah of terumat hadeshen, “lifting [and removing] the ashes [of the daily whole burnt sacrificial offerings]” that burned on the altar for the night.
What is more surprising is that the priest has to clear away the ashes himself. This nasty chore is not relegated to the Tabernacle’s servant class, the priests’ cousins, the Levites. The priest must change out of the splendid vestments, put on work clothes and dispose of the ashes personally.
Lest the exalted priest get too big for his linen britches, he must do dirty labor. He should walk among the people he serves and know something of the life of those for whom he ministers as he carries the ashes. He should be reminded that his function, even when robed in precious fabrics, is a dual: serving God, serving Israel. And the people, who see him at his task, realize that the priest is like them, a laborer on God’s earth, a person.
This reminds me of a scene from the 1968 film, “The Shoes of The Fisherman.” Anthony Quinn’s character, the newly elected pope, finds himself overwhelmed by the trappings of the papacy. He takes off his regal papal vestments, sneaks out into the night dressed as a simple priest and, incognito, comes into touch with suffering souls. He meets them where they are; he ministers to them.
The Torah lesson for priest and people: Humility is a component of the service of God. The priest is humble. He does not think less of himself; he thinks of himself less when he is present to his people.
“The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out” (Lev. 6:5). The priest’s job is not just to take away what has been used up, but to improve what has been left [by adding more wood]. Humbling himself, he causes a brighter flame upon the altar, reflecting the fervor of the people. Humility extinguishes the negative in ourselves.
Today we rely on ourselves and each other. We can be inspired by an image of ancient devotion even if the people in the image do not look like us. The creative genius of rabbinic Judaism replaced the message and messenger of the sacrificial cult with the formula of study, prayer and loving acts.
For us, the drudgery of the priesthood has some ironic resonance. We prize those moments in life when the occasion, the place, the company, the ritual evoke the sublime, the heightened moment. But we had better not count on these fleeting moments for our spiritual sustenance. Not every day is Yom Kippur; not every occasion is b.mitzvah or confirmation, wedding or ordination.
We must see the potential for holiness in the most mundane activities.
Rabbi Claire Magidovitch Green, who is the daughter and sister of rabbis, never wanted UAHC Torah Corps summer camp to end, studying Torah and living with HUC-JIR professors.