In Parashat Tzav, we read, in minute detail, of the priests’ tasks to keep the flame on the altar burning day and night. That fire was central to the spiritual life of the community.
Through their burnt offerings the Israelites drew near to God at times of transition or vulnerability. To do so, they depended on the priests to keep the altar clean and the fire burning.
In the world of Leviticus, God’s presence resided with the community, at the center of its camp, in the Ohel Mo’ed – the tent of meeting, a site of holiness and purity. As the Israelite camp moved through the wilderness, they carried the ohel mo’ed with them so that God could accompany them on their journey.
None of them knew how long they would be in no-man’s land.
They had no road map for the journey and no clarity about what wonders and obstacles they would encounter along the way. The normal tools for orienting themselves in time and space were not readily accessible and the untamed world beyond their encampment posed innumerable threats.
Yet, within the camp, with God’s help, Moses and the priests sought to establish a system that would enable the Israelites to conduct their lives in an orderly manner despite the chaos all around.
In recent weeks, we have found ourselves on a journey for which we have felt totally unprepared. Like our ancestors, we lack maps and familiar signposts (though we do have Zoom!) to help us get oriented in our new reality.
Surrounded by a world beyond our personal encampments, we are being warned of the dangers all about us, dangers with existential import.
As we attempt to keep the fires burning that give our life meaning, focus and purpose, many of us are feeling overwhelmed by the real needs of our families, friends, congregants, students, colleagues, clients, employees – all while we ourselves share the same fears and concerns for ourselves and those we hold dearest.
We find comfort and encouragement in the ancient priests’ clear model of caring for the needs of others.
Yet it is two verses near the beginning of this week’s portion that are often overlooked – verses that bring our attention to a stage of the priests’ process of tending the fires and offering the sacrifices that has much to teach in this unprecedented time.
The burnt offerings, and the emotional and spiritual needs of community members they represented, did not rise up to God in their entirety. Each offering left a tell-tale residue of ash. As the offerings piled up, so did the ash. And so we read:
“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 clean place.” (Leviticus 6:3-4)
The priest needed to shift focus from the offerings to what remained and to engage in a different activity. He needed to change his clothes, gather the ashes, leave the Ohel Mo’ed and even the camp, and deposit the ashes outside the camp.
Like our ancestral priests, each of us who is currently caring for others would be best advised to pause and check to see what has accumulated from our caring encounters, to note what we are still carrying from them, and allow ourselves to metaphorically and literally change our clothes, go beyond the confines of the physical, mental and emotional spaces we inhabit when caring for others, and put down all that we are carrying.
Failing to do so, we and the fires we are so devotedly trying to keep burning will start to gutter from the ash that surrounds them and us.
May we reaffirm our connection to God and community by remembering that to best serve others, we must take care of ourselves.
Looking for a way to center yourself during this chaotic time? Try this spiritual exercise for strength amid the coronavirus crisis, written by Rabbi Rick Schechter.
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