Torah Reading for Week of March 29 – April 4, 2009
“When Ashes Remain Clean”
by Rabbi Mel Gottlieb, PhD
“And he shall carry forth the ashes outside the camp into a clean place.” (6:4).
In the ritual of the sacrifices described in this Torah portion an interesting item is stressed: the ashes are to be kept in a clean place. Ordinarily we would assume that one could do with the ashes whatever one desired and that no special care must be taken in their disposal. But the Torah specifically stresses an elaborate ceremonial for keeping the ashes in a ‘clean place.’
It seems that a message of high morality can be derived from this. Ashes symbolize that which was of use to us, whose usefulness we once enjoyed, but which we no longer need. And because we no longer need it, we don’t care how we dispose of it.
We find this often in many situations in life. There are many people who have played an important part in our successful attainments. There are others whom we have used, consciously or inadvertently, as rungs in the ladder to our goal. But very often it happens that after we have ‘used’ others, we no longer are too much concerned about them.
Every one of us has made use of the sacrifices of others in our behalf – parents, friends – and very often we don’t keep the memory of those sacrifices – the ashes—in a sacred place. We are careless with that memory. The Torah therefore tells us: “V’hotzi et hadeshen el michutz lamachaneh el mokom tohor.” (And he shall carry forth the ashes outside the camp into a clean place).
Civilization has advanced and made progress because of the sacrifices of the past, because of the struggles of the past, because of the teachings of the past. “The past is a bucket of ashes,” says the poet Carl Sandburg. Yes, that is true, says Judaism. But it adds, though the past may be a bucket of ashes, keep those ashes b’mokom tahor, ‘in a clean place.’ Don’t vilify the past, don’t desecrate its memory, don’t minimize its place in life. We Jews have an additional responsibility of keeping pure not only the memory of the past, but the memory of the Jewish past.
Just a few weeks ago, I attended a Shabbat service in a synagogue where the youthful Rabbi, was extolling the guest speaker who had taken his institution to new heights. But in the process he denigrated those leaders before the guest speaker, who had sacrificed for years to contribute to the grandeur of this institution. It was as if they had not existed, and it was as if this institution had ‘suddenly’ blossomed and all its great accomplishments in the past were invisible, and paled in comparison. It was actually embarrassing to the guest speaker, and a desecration of the memory of those giants of the past. We must always remember in our zeal of praising our present accomplishments, never to forget or defame those who stood before us, and on whose shoulders we continue to rely upon for our current success.
Jews have for over two thousand years lived with a memory, with ashes b’mokom tohor. If we are to attain true and complete Jewish expression, we must keep the deshen—the ashes of past memories, b’mokom tohor.