What Can We Learn from Taking Out the Garbage?
What Can We Learn from Taking Out the Garbage?
In reading Parashat Tzav just one week after reading Parashat Vayikra, one cannot help but notice how, on the surface, these two portions are nearly identical. Both of them go into great detail about the five major kinds of sacrifices offered in the Tabernacle in the wilderness (and later in the Temple). There are, however, some obvious differences:
- In Vayikra, in the very first line, God instructs Moses to "Speak to the Israelite people" (Leviticus 1:1) and explain the laws of the sacrifices, while in Tzav Moses is told to "Command Aaron and his sons . . . " (6:1). In both cases very similar explanations of the various sacrifices follow.
- In Tzav, the entire end of the parashah (8:1-36) contains a detailed description of the consecration of the Tabernacle and the priests. No such description is included in Vayikra.
There are some more subtle differences as well. For instance, the order in which the various sacrifices in the two portions are described is different. And, in discussing the burnt offering (the olah) in Tzav there is a focus on a perpetual fire that must be kept burning on the altar (6:6). Both of these factors provide ample opportunity for interesting questions and a variety of responses, which will not be our focus here.
There is another subtle difference, however, that is very easy to overlook when we struggle through detailed descriptions of material as remote from our lives as these sacrifices. In discussing the olah the text tells us:
The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he 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 take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place. (6:3-4)
In short, we have a reasonably specific description of how to take out the garbage! Why would this be included in the sacred text? Is it simply yet another detail for the priests to worry about? Is it just a "throw away" couple of lines that teach us nothing important? Is there something to it beyond what is on the surface?
Through the centuries various commentators have been bothered by the inclusion of this section as well. Some focus on the importance of making the sanctuary especially beautiful and ensuring that nothing – certainly not a pile of burnt ashes – mars the awesomeness of the Tabernacle. Others argue that this section teaches us that even the priests – people of great holiness – must take care of daily chores as mundane as taking the trash to the dump.
One nineteenth century scholar, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, provides an explanation that gives us a new appreciation for the inclusion of this brief confusing section of the text. Hirsch states:
It is our daily duty to bring to our observance of the mitzvot a new zest, as if each time it were the first occasion we were performing the rite. That which we have performed in the past we are not free from performing again and again with the same joy.
"And he shall carry forth the ashes" – the relics of the previous day's work need clearing away, before the new day's work can be begun in a clean and renovated place. This explains the importance of the warning to perform the removal of the ashes – a symbol of the occupation with the previous day's work – in worn-out and old clothes. One must not don the smartest clothes in honor of something performed in the past. That is thrust aside before the fresh mitzvah that each new day bids us observe.1
So, according to Hirsch, in order for humans to fully appreciate something new – be it a sacrifice, a mitzvah, or a "new day's work," – it is necessary to "take out the garbage" and make room – physical and spiritual – for what will be newly created!
What an interesting lesson to take from a seemingly uninspired few words of Torah! What if we really took this lesson to heart as we navigate our lives? What if we put aside our former mistakes as well as our successes in our work lives, or even our family lives, and focused on creating something new in our work and our relationships each and every day? How would our lives be different? How would our satisfaction increase? How would we find more meaning in our daily pursuits?
And yet, is this realistic?
The cycle of Torah responds! Somewhat unusually, this year the reading of Tzav coincides with the special Shabbat that precedes Purim, Shabbat Zachor. This week, the maftir, the final lines read at the end of the Torah reading, is a special one related to Shabbat Zachor. It is a section from Deuteronomy (25:17-19) and it tells us that we must "remember" what our arch-enemy, Amalek, did to us as we were wandering in the wilderness. Specifically, the army of Amalek – traditionally considered to be a direct ancestor of the villain of Purim, Haman – attacked the Hebrews from the rear killing the weakest members of the community. The last words of these few verses instruct us "Do not forget!"
This presents an interesting juxtaposition. Hirsch argues that Tzav encourages us to take out the garbage each day – a metaphor for putting aside the past in order to move forward with joy, creativity, and intensity. And yet, the maftir this year comes to tell us that we must not forget the baggage we carry from the past to the present.
Is this a mutually exclusive contradiction? An insoluble dilemma? Do these two pieces – which only come together because of an unusual calendar this year – have nothing to do with each other?
On the contrary! We can learn a valuable lesson from the fact that these two texts appear side-by-side this year. We learn that it may actually benefit us to put aside the baggage from the past as we move forward in our lives each day – giving us an openness, freedom, and creativity we would not have if we focused on the past. However, we further understand that we must also remember from where we have come. Only then can we assess the value of what we accomplish in the present!
So, it is possible that both of these perspectives are correct. Both can help us find joy and meaning in daily life. After all, we recall the famous words in the Babylonian Talmud (Eruvin 13b) that Eilu v'eilu, divrei Elohim Chayim, "This one and this one are [both] the words of the living God."
- Quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, Studies in Vayikra-Leviticus (Jerusalem: WZO, 1980), p. 43
Robert Tornberg, RJE , is a Jewish educator with nearly forty years of experience in synagogue schools, day schools, and as the Education Director of DeLeT at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. Currently completing the dissertation for his Ph.D. in educational administration and program evaluation, he plans to develop an independent consulting practice focusing on program evaluation and professional development for Jewish schools, synagogues, and other organizations.
Even a cursory reading of Parashat Tzav draws one's attention to a question I have so often pondered: who laundered and dry-cleaned the priestly vestments? We read:
"The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches . . . and he shall take up the ashes. . . . He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments. . ." (Leviticus 6:3-4)
Let's face it, careful though he may have been, that's a fellow whose sacred clothing must have been in need of a cleaner.
Because of the most-welcome hugs and "Good Shabbos" greetings we exchange, I cannot get through an average Shabbat evening receiving line without several shades of pancake makeup, and a lingering shade or two of lipstick adhering to my pulpit robe and atarah.
Standing at the recent URJ Biennial in San Diego beside the booth of one of the most prominent "Tallises-R-Us" vendors, I couldn't help but notice the highly individualistic preferences for ecclesiastical pulpit garb that now obtain among my rabbinic and cantorial colleagues. There were striking contrasts of sizes, shapes, fabric, color, and weight. Some were embellished with a selected text and others with no text at all.
There were many years when the Reform rabbi wore a cut-away jacket with striped trousers on the "altar." There were exceptions of course, but by the mid- to late-1940s black pulpit robes, occasionally accompanied by slender talitot, became the standard "priestly" garb.
According to his widow, when in 1946 Rabbi Julian B. Feibelman became the first Rabbi of New Orleans' Temple Sinai to wear a black academic robe, "My God, you would have thought Julian had walked out on the altar 'nak-ed.' "
Through the decades, white robes for the High Holidays have become de rigueur while the use of black robes on the bimah is almost as rare as a red heifer! Of course, when it comes to sacred head coverings, any number of kippah styles have made "headway!"
So there you have it – from the linen breeches worn by the Temple priest all the way to a clergy team wearing matching Elmo kippot. Here's the thing though: Inside every rabbi and cantorial officiant one thing has not changed since the time of the ancient priests – that's the fire in the soul to worthily do justice to our sacred calling. That calling was so well described ten centuries ago by poet Y'hudah HaLevi:
O would that I might be a servant unto Thee,
Thou God of all adored!
(Union Prayer Book II [New York: CCAR, 1945], p. 248)
Rabbi Edward Paul Cohn, DD, D.Min. is the rabbi at Congregation Temple Sinai in New Orleans, Louisiana.
Tzav, Leviticus 6:1–8:36
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 781–798; Revised Edition, pp. 686–700;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 593–614