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Jewish Journal

Yesterday’s Ashes

Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

by Rabbi Dan Shevitz

March 20, 2008 | 6:00 pm

What do you do with yesterday's holiness?

Everything has a shelf life, even holiness. Only God is eternal. Ancient forms and rituals give way to new interpretations. The Tent of Meeting gave way to the Mishkan, which in turn gave way to the Temple and, later, the synagogue. Institutions evolve into forms that their founders never conceived. Families, too, grow and change; the reverence we had for our elders when we were small gave way to more nuanced relationships as we become teens and then parents ourselves.

But change is painful, so what shall we do?

One possibility is to hold back the tide of change. Cosmetic surgery, for example, allows us to pretend that our bodies don't age. What we do with lotions and injections to our bodies can be done to our institutions as well: With enough intellectual paint, we can make ourselves believe that our spiritual lives are the same as our grandparents'. We can wear their clothes and adopt their ways, and soon we are living in someone else's century. This can be comforting for a while, but we have to keep building our walls higher and higher to keep out the world.

This can't be what God wants of us.

Another possibility is revolution -- the wholesale abandonment of the past and reinventing ourselves regularly. Ancient rituals can be stored in mothballs, or pickled and preserved in an emotional museum, to be visited on special occasions like the crazy uncle who lives in the attic, but not taken seriously. We can allow ourselves to believe that respect for the past is an encumbrance on our autonomous selves. A little nostalgia on holidays is in order, perhaps, but nothing that demands too much attention. This is not only spiritually vacuous, but it is wearisome as well.

Our Torah portion deals with this question in a straightforward way:

"This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning.... The priest shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. He shall then ... carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place" (Leviticus 6:2-4).

The sacrifice -- the sacred service to God, performed in purity -- is over. Today demands a new offering. What is to be done with the ashes of yesterday's service? They are to be gathered in purity and carried "outside the camp." They are to be honored, but not revered. They will not be kept as mementos. They belong to yesterday, and will not travel with camp when it moves on.

We don't serve God the same way that Moses did, or even our grandparents' generation. Our children, too, will take some of what we give them, but much of what we value will be left by them -- outside the camp. Every holiness has a shelf life, and when it is done it must be set aside honorably as the camp moves on; it must make room for new service.

Where shall we leave our precious emotional and spiritual possessions that don't work anymore? Maimonides says this about the ashes of the sacrifice: "Even though removing the ashes is not formally worship, they should not be carried by a person who is ineligible to serve. They should be taken outside ... to a place where there are no fierce winds, and where pigs will not root through them" (Laws of the Daily Sacrifice, 2:15). The ashes of yesterday's service are not to become relics, but neither are they to be abandoned to swine. Memories, like dishes, can be treifed up. They are meant to be honored, even if we cannot stay with them for long.

Krister Stendahl , the great Lutheran theologian, once likened the religious community to a snake. Every now and then it sheds its skin, he said, and scholars rush to dissect and examine the skin to learn about the snake. In the meantime, the snake has slithered off to someplace else.

As a holy people, we carry centuries of holy memories with us. We are inspired by them, we learn from them, we depend on them. But we are not them. When the pillar of cloud moved on, we could no more take all our valuables with us then we could take bread out of Mitzraim. Rabbi Nachman taught: One who carries too much baggage never gets out of Egypt.

Yet, there is a messianic promise of the Time to Come. The prophet Jeremiah taught us that in time's end the ash heap -- the place where we left our precious moments of holiness that we could not make last forever -- will no longer be outside the camp, but will be incorporated into the city: the city of Jerusalem, no less! Until then, we must look not only to where we have been, but to where we are being summoned. There we will find tomorrow's holiness.

Rabbi Dan Shevitz serves Congregation Mishkon Tephilo in Venice and teaches rabbinical students at the American Jewish University.

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