Wednesday, March 25, 2015

A Thought on the Parasha

Feel free to download and print the Parasha sheet and share it with your friends and family: Click here: Parashat Tzav

Tzav: Pulling Back the Curtain

Vayikra began with a detailed list of the different sacrifices a person could bring and the laws pertaining to them. Somewhat surprisingly, the Torah seems to repeat itself in this week's parasha, listing once again all the sacrifices and how they are to be brought. What is the point of this repetition?

The answer can be found in the first verses of each parasha. Vayikra begins with a command to Moshe to speak to the children of Israel; the opening verse of Tzav commands him to speak to the Kohanim. Accordingly, Vayikra details the laws pertaining to the person bringing the sacrifice, while Tzav details the laws pertaining to the Kohanim executing the sacrificial service. The first concern of the one bringing the sacrifice is what may be brought, and thus Vayikra opens with those requirements. On the other hand, the first concern of the Kohanim is how the sacrificial service must be executed: ensuring that the offerings on the altar are completely burnt, determining who may eat from which portions of the sacrifices, and other similar details. It is the same sacrifice in each case; the difference is one of perspective.

In laying out the duties of the Kohanim, our parasha quickly deviates from the focus on sacrifices per se. After stating briefly how the burnt offering is to be burnt, the Torah spells out in great detail the ritual of the terumat ha'deshen, the removal of ashes from the altar by a Kohen each morning. In addition to this daily ritual, a Kohen must also do a more thorough removal of the ashes when necessary, changing into non-priestly clothes and transporting the ashes outside the camp. This almost amounts to janitorial work, "garbage removal," and is certainly not something likely to be perceived as a very lofty task. What is the importance of telling us of this lowly task, and why do so at the very beginning of the parasha?

The Torah is pulling the curtain back to let us see what goes on behind the scenes. In the beginning of Vayikra, when the person comes to the Temple to bring a sacrifice, all he or she sees is a clean and ordered space: the Kohanim functioning efficiently, in a coordinated manner, and the visitors being treated respectfully and attended to in a proper and timely fashion. In short, everything is functioning just as it should. The person's only concern is the sacrifice that he or she is bringing.

But this beautiful setting does not come about automatically. It is the product of an efficiently run organization, and an enormous amount of behind-the-scenes effort is required to make everything look perfect. The priests make it all look simple for the worshipper.

For the Temple to function as it should, the ashes have to be taken out every morning, the floors have to be washed, the utensils have to be cleaned and put back in their proper places, the fire has to be tended, the supplies have to be available, the Kohanim have to be organized and coordinated. As the law of entropy teaches us, disorder is the natural state of affairs, and maintaining order requires constant work and attention. From the perspective of the one bringing the sacrifice, all of this work is invisible. From the perspective of the Kohanim, it is a top priority. If the ashes aren't removed or the fire isn't tended, the Temple will not be able to open for business.

It is so easy for us as consumers, as recipients of other people's services, to be completely blind to this sort of effort, to think service is simple and to take it for granted. How often have we gone to a conference and not even thought about the fact that everything was exactly as it should be? We take this as a given; if things were just right, we would be irate: "Why isn't my room ready?!" "I can't believe they didn't take care of my special request for lunch!" Sadly, these are not uncommon remarks at such events. The thousands of details and the hundreds of man-hours required to get everything perfectly in place, to make it all look easy and simple, are somehow so easily forgotten.

This blindness is not limited to conferences, of course. In our interactions with our spouses, how often do we get upset when something is not exactly as it should be, completely taking for granted all the effort that we do not see, or choose not to see? Are we fully cognizant of how much work it takes to keep a house in order, to "remove the ashes": taking out the garbage, vacuuming, doing the wash, putting everything in its place, keeping the house stocked with groceries, having meals ready at the right time, having the table set, having the dishes done, having the bills paid, interacting with the children's teachers, handling the planning for camp or extra-curricular activities? Do we see all of this? Or do we just get upset when something was forgotten or not done to our liking?

This also occurs in our appraisals of our rabbis and teachers, the Kohanim of today. How often do we go home from shul complaining about some detail in the rabbi's sermon or some other small thing that was not exactly perfect? Do we remember the hundreds of hours, the enormous effort, required to keep the shul running? Do we recognize the number of hours that the rabbi puts in teaching, visiting people in the hospital, providing counsel, working with bar and bat mitzvah children, or being at every shiva house and every bris?

When it comes to those who have taken upon themselves the holy task of educating our children - in Torah or in secular studies - do we ever stop to appreciate the hours upon hours that they put in over countless nights: grading tests, preparing lessons, writing thoughtful feedback on exams and essays, writing assessments, writing letters of recommendation? Or do we take all of that for granted, or worse, do we not even see it at all? When we go to parent/teacher conferences we want to hear how wonderfully our children are doing. We might also come with concerns - or a long list of complaints. But do we ever take the time to thank these tireless individuals, not only for the teaching they do in class but also for their endless, behind-the-scenes efforts to make sure everything will be just right, just so?

Because this work is so easily overlooked it requires extra encouragement. Our parasha opens, "Command, tzav, the children of Israel" (Vayikra, 6:1). According to Rashi, "tzav means nothing other than urging - for now and for all future generations." Those who are doing the tireless work behind the scenes need encouragement. The work is hard. It can be never-ending, inglorious. It can feel like taking out of garbage, not like the holy work that it is. For it is what brings kedusha to the lives of those being served.

There is a reason why some of our most talented people don't go into avodat haKodesh and devote themselves to the Jewish community, or why we sometimes lose our best rabbis and our best teachers. If all of their effort goes unacknowledged, if we do not give them the encouragement, the tzav,that they both deserve and need, then we should not be surprised if the fire on the altar no longer burns as strongly or as brightly.

This is the challenge of Parashat Tzav. Can we extract ourselves from our Vayikra perspective? Can we put ourselves into the perspective of Tzav, of the Kohanim? If we can, we will see that, from their point of view, the first concern is not what animal to bring or even how it is to be brought. Rather, the first priority for those serving in the Temple is that mundane and necessary task of making sure that the ashes are removed, that all the work is done the night before so that everything will be perfect in the morning. The Kohanim's work is to ensure that everything will flow so easily and function so perfectly that it can be taken for granted. Our work is to make sure that we never take it for granted.

Shabbat Shalom!