Thursday, March 17, 2011

The Flame in the Ashes

I presented this dvar Torah at Congregation Shaarey Tefilah in Vancouver few years ago:

This week we read Parsha Tzav from Leviticus. This parsha is in many ways a continuation of Vayyikra, which we read last week; and these parshot plus the next two form a kind of "Everything you Always wanted to know about sacrifices but were afraid to ask." And I mean everything! I must admit, like many of you, I find this section of the Torah the most difficult. It's relatively easy to find relevance in the lives of the Patriarchs, but here, it feels a little like looking for the meaning of life in the instruction manual for your DVD player.

I should mention here that it's particularly apt that I should be speaking on this subject at this time. My grandfather, z'l, whom I'm named after was born on Purim, and was called Mordechai. I've always enjoyed this tradition of naming our children after our ancestors. It's a wonderful way of keeping the past alive, and revering our traditions. The opening of this week's Parsha, alludes to this idea.

TZAV details the laws of the Karbanot, the sacrificial offerings brought both in the Mishkan, the portable Tabernacle, and later in the Beit HaMikdash, the Holy Temple in Yerushalayim. Incidentally, the word TZAV comes from the same root as MITZVAH, which means commandment.

Tzav opens with God's instructions to Aaron and his sons on the commandments of the burnt offerings. As a result of these offerings, ash collects on the altar. The priests are given very explicit and detailed instructions on the removal of the ash, including a change of clothing. We're all very lucky we don't have to go to this much trouble every time we take out the garbage.

What is most significant to me here is the reason for this care in removal of the old ashes: the fire must be kept burning continually. In fact, if you look carefully you'll see that this commandment is given twice (Vayyikra VI, Lines 5 and 6.) The message is clear: in order for the fire to burn well, the old ashes must be removed. And they must be done by a Priest with care and reverence. What is interesting is that not all of the ash is removed. The Priest collects only a shovelful. It is the ritual that is important. In doing so, each day begins with the completion of the sacrifices of the preceding day.

In many ways, we are like the altar, as both a community and individuals. As the Jewish nation, we have been shouldered with a responsibility to make sacrifices, in the both the colloquial sense, that is, to give something up, and in the Jewish sense, to draw nearer to God. Both definitions apply to the term sacrifice. Although we are no longer able to offer up the sacrifices as prescribed by the Torah, we find ourselves continually making sacrifices in order to live as Jews in the modern world.

It could also be said that throughout history, it has been the Jews that have been offered up as a sacrifice, not voluntarily, like the burnt offerings, and not for OUR sins, but for the sins of the other nations. It still shocks me to think that less than 20 years before I was born, Jews were being reduced to ash, not metaphorically, not allegorically, but all too literally. Without care and most certainly, without reverence. This year, we mark the 66th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, and recently, the new Yad Vashem, Israel's Holocaust museum opened. In the next few years, we will be faced with a new challenge. How do we, as a people, continue to mark the Holocaust, without letting it weigh us down. We are all covered with the ashes of history. We all carry with us ashes of anger, guilt, denial, horror and vengeance. As long as OUR altars are covered with ash, we cannot burn brightly. This week, we remembered a near Holocaust of the Jewish people of Persia. We could continue to be be angry and bitter at these enemies. Instead, we have found a way, though music and prayer, to remove these dark ashes from ourselves, and have succeeded in making Purim a bright light in the Jewish calendar.

My Grandfather, Mordechai, managed to live up to his name. He was a steamship agent in Ottawa for many years. As the situation for European Jews worsened before the war, he (and others) lobbied Steamship lines and members of Parliament until a system was established so Canadians could buy tickets for European relatives to escape Europe. Before this change, money had to wired to Europe, and as you can imagine, it did not always make it.

Each year, when I mark Yom Ha'Shoah, I think not only of family lost, but also a bright light that overcame a challenge and made a difference.

Each of us is a fire on an altar. Our own lives can become heavy with soot and remains of pain and hurt. From the loss of a job, to the death of a parent or child. Through acts of tradition - like being named after my Grandfather - we find ways of removing remnants of sadness and loss, to keep a family healthy and vibrant. It's important to remember that we are not expected to live in the past; tradition should never be a burden. We can manage our pasts with care and reverence, like the ashes of the altar, but we live in the here and now and must be ready to fulfil our lives to the fullest.

TZAV reminds us of the importance of taking some time each day to reflect on our lives and Jewish history so that we remember to remove these ashes that can smother us and prevent us from burning as brightly as possible.

Shabbat Shalom.