Parshat Tzav

Torah Reading for Week of March 21-27, 2021
By Rabbi Rachel Axelrad, ’20
The views expressed in this drash are those of the author. We welcome Torah insights and teachings from all viewpoints, and encourage dialogue to strengthen the diversity of our academy.
Tzav: Lev 6:1-6
Adonai spoke to Moses, saying: “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘this is the instruction for the olah. It is the olah that shall be kindled on the altar all night, until the morning, and the fire of the altar shall continue burning by it.’” The kohen shall dress in linen garments, and he shall dress his body in linen breeches. He shall raise up the ashes from the fire that consumed the olah on the altar, and place them next to the altar. He shall remove his garments and dress in different garments, and take the ashes out from the camp to a ritually pure place. The fire on the altar shall be kept burning on it; it shall not go out. The kohen shall burn wood on it every morning; he shall arrange the olah upon it, and he shall turn the fat parts of the offering of well-being into smoke upon [the altar]. A perpetual fire shall be kept lit on the altar; it shall not go out.
This passage, which at first seems dry and overly detailed in ritual functions, is, in fact, rich with metaphors of holiness and spirituality. First, the passage addresses the treatment of the olah – usually translated as the burnt offering. This is the most holy offering as reflected by its name and treatment: it is burnt into ashes and the smoke rises up towards the heavens, to the Divine. The metaphor continues with “וְהֵרִים “, which continues the metaphor of the olah that rises up; the kohen raises up the ashes from the olah to place them next to the altar. Second, the fire itself is perpetual, signifying the endless nature of the Divine, especially in contrast with the limitations of humanity who do not live forever. The kohanim are responsible for ensuring that the fire is perpetual; it requires human intervention to fulfill the significance of the metaphor. The human intervention requires that the kohen ensures continuity of the acts; when the current one is unable to continue the job, it must be picked up by another kohen. In this way, the efforts of the kohanim underscore the necessity of maintaining the connection with the Divine, and that it is necessary for humanity to maintain that connection. Third, the ash, which is removed—set aside next to the altar—and then transferred to a ritually pure site, represents the residue of the holy connection. It is permanent and indestructible; the ashes remain in the ground in perpetuity, there is no further decomposition.
Classical commentators extend these metaphors beyond the functions of the Temple cult. R. Hirsch describes the separation of the previous day’s ashes as a declaration that we will continue to serve G-d as we did yesterday. The fire itself burns better when the ashes are cleared, indicating that maintaining the essence of holiness requires regular daily effort. Furthermore, the ashes are seen as a reflection of mitzvot; yesterday’s ashes are yesterday’s mitzvot. Today we focus on new mitzvot, in fulfillment of the ongoing effort towards holiness. Rav Schneerson understands the Sanctuary in the desert as a metaphor for the core sanctuary inside each person. Maintaining the fire on the altar is the metaphor for the manner of practicing Judaism.
The olah, unlike other offerings, is burnt in its entirety; the kohanim do not eat any part of it. Since the kohanim have no hereditary land holdings, their entire livelihood is from offerings brought to the Sanctuary or Temple. The olah, in a sense, represents a sacrifice on the part of the kohanim. Thus, the connection to the Divine that comes from any offerings, also applies to them. They in particular must work to maintain this perpetual connection. As the rabbinic period of Judaism developed, the functions of the kohanim disappeared, but the necessity to work daily to renew the Divine connection remained, as a responsibility for all of the Jewish people. Through that responsibility each of us, individually, can maintain the holy connection to the Divine, that nourishes our souls, both individually and collectively.