Jeremiah 7:21–8:3; 9:22–23
“I have nothing to wear” probably was not one of the things the priests of the Tabernacle used to say in the morning. As we learned earlier in the Book of Exodus, they had carefully designed, beautiful clothing that was full of splendor and symbolism.
This week we find out they even had special clothing for taking out the garbage: “And the priest shall put on his linen garment, and his linen breeches shall he put upon his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes where the fire has consumed the burnt-offering on the altar, and he shall put them beside the altar” (Leviticus 6:3).
The Tabernacle was closed to the public at night because sacrifices were brought only during the day. But before a new day began, the priest got up early to take out the ashes from the sacrifices left on the altar, reminding us that we can’t start a new day, a new endeavor, while the old “stuff” is still around, smoldering.
There was also a special place to dump the ashes, because regardless of whether trash is physical, intellectual, emotional or spiritual, there needs to be a dedicated place where it can be safely deposited. Only then can we turn around and welcome the new day, fresh and clean.
The Torah portion of Tzav brings us more instructions regarding the sacrifices, this time directed specifically to Aaron, the high priest, and his sons, who were the ones to carry out the sacrificial system. They had to know how to offer each sacrifice. However, they did not have to know why it was brought. This caused major challenges later on, when the sacrifices became a meaningless routine, and the prophets criticized it. But this system did demonstrate how Judaism values straightforward action. Looking at the Ten Commandments, we see they all have to do with how we behave — not what we think, how we look, where we’re from, etc.
A familiar joke comes to mind about two friends, Joe and Mo, who meet in the street. “Which way is the bridge?” asks Joe. “Here, hold these,” says Mo, handing over two giant watermelons he’s been carrying. Then he throws his hands in the air, saying, “I don’t know!”
Speaking with our hands might seem like funny behavior, and yet it is important to note how important this type of action is to how we express ourselves and tell others who we are and what we believe in.
The sacrifices of the Tabernacle seem light years away, but if we read about them carefully (and yes, it’s not easy), we can find some fascinating aspects and even core values we still share and wish to emulate today.
The root of the Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, is related to karov, “to come near.” The Torah is adamant that one cannot have a close relationship with anyone, including God, without a “sacrifice,” without giving up something. According to the Torah, we can’t get connected and committed to anything just by receiving. We must give of our own.
The altar at the Tabernacle, and later at the Temple, contained an ongoing fire, and the text tells us: “veha’esh al hamizbe’ach tukad bo” — “and the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning within it” (6:2-5). On the surface it seems simple: The fire needs to be burning at all times on the altar, similar to the ner tamid, the eternal light, above the ark in shuls. However, the same verse also can be read “and the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning within him.” Namely, within the priest’s heart.
To serve God and the community properly, the priest must have a fire of devotion, commitment and service within him. He must be passionate about his calling, but as we all know from home barbecues, tending a fire is an art. The Torah asks us to be cautious with any fire: the one of the altar, and the one within us. Wherever we are, we need to find that balance in our lives.
Michal Kohane is a longtime leader and educator in the Jewish community of Northern California.