March 24, 2005
After the Ashes
Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36)
On a rabbinic mission to Israel in 1998, Natan Sharansky, then Israel's minister of industry and trade, addressed our group.
Sharansky recounted to us how he was invited to visit Russia a year after his election to the Knesset. It was the first time in history that a past prisoner of the Russian government returned as a leader in the free world. Sharansky told of other unique aspects of his trip.
"I was the first state guest who insisted not on going to the Russian Ballet," he said. "But rather I wanted to visit the former KGB prison where I was incarcerated."
The Russians were baffled by this unusual request. It actually took a good deal of time for Moscow to agree, and the trip was delayed until consent was granted. The Russians meticulously prepared for the visit.
Sharansky said, "It was so clean that it almost looked like the Ballet Theater. Of course they cleaned it up in my honor, and I thanked them for their kindness."
As Sharansky and his wife, Avital, toured the prison, he asked his hosts, "Please show me the punishment cell."
The officials didn't know what to do. They were not prepared for this request, and obviously it wasn't on the official itinerary. Furthermore, they wanted to deny that there was such a room.
"They showed me a regular cell and said it was the punishment cell," he said. "I told them that if there is one thing they cannot deceive me about, it is Russian prisons.
"So they finally consented and showed me a punishment cell that was empty. I then asked to be left alone with my wife for 15 minutes."
When the Sharanskys reappeared, the journalists asked why he insisted on such a visit. They wanted to know if this was an act of masochism.
"'On the contrary, it was the most inspiring moment of my life,'" Sharansky responded. "'When I was a prisoner of the Soviet Union, my jailers tortured and taunted me and told me that world Jewry had betrayed me and that I would never leave the prison alive.'
"Today, the KGB does not exist, the Soviet Union does not exist, and 1 million Jews have left the punishment cell called the Soviet Union. This is what I went back to see. This is what I am thankful for."
Sharansky's attitude is as old as the Bible. This week's Torah portion began with a description of the olah, the obligatory burnt offering that was brought twice a day -- morning and afternoon -- to the Holy Temple.
Strangely, the description starts with four verses devoted to the laws about removing the ashes of the sacrifice that was consumed throughout the previous night. Only with verse five do we find the laws pertaining to the sacrifice itself.
Rabbi Chayim ben Attar, the 18th-century Moroccan kabbalist and commentator, suggested that this order was replete with a moral message. In his biblical commentary, the Or HaChayim, he argued that it depicted Jewish history in which suffering seems to dominate, but in the end victory will reign.
"This is the teaching of the burnt offering: It is the burnt offering on the firewood...."
Our history has been "the offering on the firewood," that consumed so many Jews, he notes in Or HaChayim. When one reads Jewish history it appears like a gigantic furnace devouring so many of our people.
The fire of anti-Semitism burned throughout a long, dark night that seems to have no end. The Torah, however, tells us that this is not our destiny; rather, "the Kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning ... you shall not extinguish it."
We, the generation after the Holocaust, the generation of the establishment of the State of Israel, the generation of the freedom of Soviet Jewry and the generation of the ingathering of Ethiopian Jewry, know the truth of this message.
Jewish history is not only fire and ashes; it is the promise of a glorious destiny. Our job is to make that destiny happen sooner rather than later.
Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.