Sunday, April 2, 2017

In the moment but treasuring past triumphs- Tzav

Image by Jean Beaufort reproduced under CC0 Public Domain 
I was preparing a talk for 50 public servants recently. Although I could impress them with my best stories gathered over the years, I chose not to because that would not be authentic to where I am at right now. Instead I chose to reflect on a traditional Aboriginal story about a “Thicky Billa” (Echidna), that I read very recently that moved me. I shared how learning about the way Aboriginal people transmitted their teachings about being responsibility-centred vs. desire-centred spoke to me as a Jewish man. I also reflected on my delight being inspired by “Black Fella wisdom” as a former ‘racist’ from Brooklyn.

The principle of being present in the moment is linked to the Torah reading this week. In the temple ritual, there was a daily procedure that involved removing ashes from the previous day’s sacrifices [i]. One interpretation of this ritual is that we must not dwell on yesterday’s fire. The ritual “signified that each day we renewed our commitment to comply with all that is incumbent upon us…the relics of the previous day’s ritual must be removed before the new days ritual can begin…This must be done in worn out and old clothes [ii]. One must not regale oneself in pomp for that which belongs to the past; it is superseded by the present mitzvah (commandment) that each day bids us [iii]”.

This beautiful teaching could be taken to mean that we should completely forget yesterday’s struggles and achievements. I don’t think this is right. We can draw strength and learn lessons from past triumph over both personal and external challenges. If we juxtapose other commentaries with the one above we can discern a more nuanced message.

One teaching about the removal of ashes focuses on the word in the Torah that implies taking some (of the ashes) but leaving some [iv]. Another teaching suggests that one only needed to remove 10% of the ashes, leaving the other 90% in place [v]. Another aspects of the ritual required that the ashes were gently [vi] put down on the side of the altar rather than thrown away or spread out. It was put in a place where the winds did not blow strongly [vii].

These teachings suggest that what need to do is not forget past experiences of service, but rather that we must ensure that there is sufficient head space for adding new accomplishments alongside those of yesterday. However, we can certainly hold the past dear and cherish it.

The ashes are also linked to the need for humility. On the other hand the lifting up of the ashes is symbolic of God lifting up those who are humbled [viii]. Our spirits need to be strengthened, to focus on meeting the challenges of today. One source of that nourishment may well be awareness of the progress on our journey so far.

[i] Leviticus 6:3.
[ii] See Rashi on 6:4.
[iii] Hirsch, S. R. In his commentary on Leviticus 6:3-4.
[iv] Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma Chapter 2:1, cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 141, 44, similar argument is made in Gur Arye.
[v] Talmud, Yoma 24a.
[vi] Torat Kohanim, cited in Torah Shlaima, p. 142.
[vii] Maimonides, laws of Temidim Umusafim, 2:15 according to the Roman print cited in Torah Shlaima, p146, 50.
[viii] Klei Yakar on Leviticus 6:3.

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