This Week's Torah Portion: A Lesson in Humility

Dëvar Torah – Parashath Tzav (Leviticus VI, 1-VIII, 36)

This week’s parasha is in a certain sense a recapitulation of last week’s parasha in that the same five categories of sacrifices are discussed. To be sure, different aspects are brought out, but at first glance it is hard to see why these could not have been combined in a single parasha, or broken down differently than they are.

A clue is contained in the beginning of each of the parashoth in which we are told who the audience being addressed is. Parashath VaYiqra’ begins: Dabbér el bënei Yisra’él vë’amarta aléhem (“Speak to the bënei Yisra’él and you will say to them … ”, I, 2), while in our parasha we find: Tzav eth Aharon vë’eth banav lémor (“Command Aharon and his sons, to say … ”, VI, 2).

Our parasha thus contains a shift in emphasis from the bënei Yisra’él who finance and provide the qorbanoth to the kohanim who are responsible for execution. In this shift we can find an explanation for a puzzling difference between the parashoth.

In VaYiqra’, the qorbanoth are presented in the following order: ‘Ola (“burnt sacrifice”), mincha (“grain offering”), shëlamim (“peace sacrifices”), chattath (“sin sacrifice”), and asham (“guilt sacrifice”). In our parasha, the order is subtly different: Chattath and asham directly follow the mincha, and shëlamim bring up the rear.

The different audience explains the order: since the bënei Yisra’él provide the sacrifices, the Torah showcases the zërizuth (“willingness, enthusiasm”) which should characterize their activity by emphasizing the voluntary sacrifices (‘ola, mincha, shëlamim) over those which are strictly obligatory (chattah, asham). The kohanim, however, responsible (as we noted last week) for the administration of the institution of qëdusha (“holiness”) in Israel, have the qorbanoth presented in order of their sanctity: from the ‘ola (which the Torah characterizes as qodesh qodashim, “holy of holies”) to the shëlamim (qodashim qalim or “lesser holies,” cf. mishna Zëvachim V, 4-6).

That said, it is curious that our parasha begins its discussion of the ‘ola with what seems a trivial housekeeping matter:

Vëlavash hakohén middo vad umchnësei vad yilbash ‘al bësaro vëhérim eth hadeshen asher tochal ba’ésh eth ha‘ola el hamizbéach vësamo étzel hamizbéach. Ufashat eth bëgadav vëlavash bëgadim achérim vëhotzi’ eth hadashen el michutz lamachane el maqom tahor.

And the kohén will wear his linen coat, and linen trousers he will wear on his flesh, and he will lift up the ashes which the fire will make of the ‘ola on the altar, and he will place them beside the altar. And he will remove his clothes and put on other clothes and remove the ashes outside the camp to a clean place (VI, 3-4).

Rashi explains the reason for changing his garments very prosaically:

 … that he not dirty by taking out the ashes clothes in which he serves constantly.

The very prosaic nature of this action raises the question: obviously the altar has to be cleared of the ashes of previous sacrifices to make room for the new; what is there about this operation that the Torah even has to mention it, much less spend two verses to tell us what seems obvious?

Rashi’s comment becomes more interesting in light of the Talmud’s observation (Yoma 23b) that the kohén is not exactly changing to jeans and an old sweatshirt for this job. Though the second set of garments may be of lesser value or older, they are nonetheless bigdei këhunna. Then, too, application of a little thought renders the conclusion that it is hard to see why carrying the ashes out is so much dirtier than removing them from the altar to necessitate the change in clothes, if Rashi’s reason is all there is to it. What is more, we are driven to the conclusion that there is more than meets the eye, since the Torah is eternally relevant, and this, too, must mean something even to our debased generation, in which we cannot bring sacrifices.

A glimmering of another level of meaning can be glimpsed from an odd comment in the Yërushalmi. The kohén, we are told, is to lift up the ashes lëlammedcha she’éyn gëdulla bapaltërin shel melech (“to teach you that there is no greatness in the throne-room of the king,” Yërushalmi Shabbath X, 3). Rabbi Baruch haLévi Epstein, early 20th century rabbi of Pinsk, in his Torah Tëmima cites this passage and notes that, were it not for the specific provision of our verse, there is no reason why a non-kohén (zar) could not perform this routine duty with the aid of a long-handled utensil. He concludes that the Yëruhalmi is telling us that the Torah specifically mandates the job be done by a kohén in his vestments of office:

[F]or a man is not to show himself in greatness before the Holy One, Blessed is He even if he is great and honored.

In short, the Torah Tëmima sees in the performance of this task an exercise in practical humility.

To understand why such an exercise is precisely applicable here, it is necessary to remember that the këhunna as an institution is unique. No one achieves this exalted status because of any effort or quality inherent in him; he is simply born into it. One is either a descendant of Aharon or one is not. There is no “conversion,” no granting of an honorary degree, which can make a zar, however worthy of respect in his own right, into a kohén.

In this regard the institution of the këhunna bears a resemblance to the European hereditary aristocracy. Whatever meritorious deeds one’s ancestor did to be granted his title, forever more, be they utterly undeserving, his descendants bear it. As even the most cursory glance at the gossip columns reveals, such an institution is an ideal culture medium for the spawning of egoism. For that reason, the Torah, ever watchful for human foibles, seeks to counter it here. Where the greatest qëdusha is found, there we must find humility.

The question of the change in clothing yet remains; of what does that remind us?

The great Rabbi S. R. Hirsch finds a lesson of zërizuth for us all in this passage. He reminds us that every time we perform a mitzva it should be as fresh, as vital, as the very first time. But the simple fact that so many mitzvoth are so repetitive in character (we must pray three times daily; we should make 100 blessings each day) makes the maintenance of such an attitude seem superhuman. How can we possibly succeed in pursuit of so lofty a goal?

Vëhotzi’ eth hadeshen: Before setting out to do a new task, there is a hechsher mitzva, a “preparatory step” of clearing away the relics of the previous day’s task. This needs to be done efficiently and without fanfare. Whatever has already been accomplished is now over; we may not rest on our laurels, wear the best clothes, so to speak, in commemoration of the past, of the ashes of yesterday’s fire. That honor is reserved for the next mitzva. As the Ozherover Rebbe is fond of saying, this is the ‘olam ha‘asiya, the world of doing; the next world is the world of resting. Maybe there we can wear the best bëgadim and contemplate our accomplishments, but not here.