He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.
–Leviticus 6:4 (JPS Tanakh)
What lesson do we learn from the ceremonious taking out the ashes from the altar each morning?
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch comments that the taking out of the ashes that remained on the altar from the previous day expresses the thought that with each new day, the Torah mission must be accomplished afresh, as if nothing had yet been accomplished. Every new day calls us to our mission with new devotion and sacrifice. The thought of what has already been accomplished can be the death of that which is still to be accomplished. Woe unto him who with smug self-complacency thinks he can rest on his laurels, on what he has already achieved, and who does not meet the task of every fresh day with full devotion as if it were the first day of his life’s work!
“Carry forth the ashes out of the camp.” Every trace of yesterday’s sacrifice is to be removed from the hearth on the Altar, so that the service of the new day can be started on completely fresh ground. Given these considerations, we can understand the law that prescribes the wearing of worn-out garments when one is occupied with the achievements of the previous day. The past is not to be forgotten. However, it is to be retired to the background, and is not to invest us with pride before the fresh task to which each new day calls us. (Rabbi Hirsch’s commentary)
-Rabbi Kalman Packouz
“Shabbat Shalom Weekly”
Commentary on Torah Portion Tzav
I have been accused of being a very simplistic, very lyrical player, and that’s okay. That just comes from the blues, which is my background. But every day you wake up and transcend. You can’t ever rest on your laurels.
I could probably find dozens of similar quotes to illustrate this single point. But it’s a difficult point. Rabbi Packouz uses this lesson to tell us that our past successes do not transfer into the present. No matter how well you’ve done in anything, even serving God, you are only as good as you are today. Serving God well yesterday and then not serving God today just means you’re not serving God. Your “laurels” are already wilting, so to speak.
Carlos Santana says that “every day you wake up and transcend.” The Rebbe, Rabbi M. M. Schneerson said this:
When you awake in the morning, learn something to inspire you and mediate upon it, then plunge forward full of light with which to illuminate the darkness.
Each day is a new opportunity to live, to serve God, to serve other people. Each day is a new opportunity to discover something new and exciting about yourself. It is why observant Jews recite the following blessing as their very first blessing to God, even before getting out of bed in the morning.
“I gratefully thank You, living and existing King
for restoring my soul to me with compassion.
Abundant is your faithfulness.”
But the sentiment works in another direction as well.
Success isn’t permanent and failure isn’t fatal.
US football player and coach
I’ve noticed a good many people working in sales have that particular quote jotted on a sticky note or written on a white board in or around their work area. Success isn’t permanent. Rabbi Packouz and Carlos Santana both agree on that. But failure isn’t fatal, either. It only feels that way sometimes.
We were told to transcend limitations — but that doesn’t mean just jumping into the air with no idea of where you’re going to land!
-Rabbi Tzvi Freeman
Based on letters and talks of the Rebbe
Rabbi M. M. Schneerson
Said to one who fell into enormous debt trying to achieve miracles
Adding all this up, you might say, success isn’t permanent, serve God today as well as yesterday. Failure isn’t fatal, but don’t do anything stupid that will likely result in you failing God.
And Jesus answered him, “It is said, ‘You shall not put the Lord your God to the test.’”
–Luke 4:12 (ESV)
You may be eager to serve God but good intentions aside, eagerness is not enough. In fact misdirected, eagerness can get you in a lot of trouble. One horrible modern example is the “eagerness” of the Westboro Baptist Church which results only in demonstrations of bigotry and increasing the grief of the families of our fallen military personnel who gave their lives in the service of our nation.
Here’s another example of misguided eagerness and zealousness.
And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles. Devout men buried Stephen and made great lamentation over him. But Saul was ravaging the church, and entering house after house, he dragged off men and women and committed them to prison.
But Saul, still breathing threats and murder against the disciples of the Lord, went to the high priest and asked him for letters to the synagogues at Damascus, so that if he found any belonging to the Way, men or women, he might bring them bound to Jerusalem. Now as he went on his way, he approached Damascus, and suddenly a light from heaven shone around him. And falling to the ground he heard a voice saying to him, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” And he said, “Who are you, Lord?” And he said, “I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting.
–Acts 8:1-3, 9:1-5 (ESV)
Fortunately, Paul’s zealousness took a turn for the better, but he had to encounter the Master in a dramatic and startling way and be robbed of his sight before Paul could begin to see that he needed to travel in a different direction. Before that, he jumped into the air but didn’t realize where he was going to land.
Serving God is a partnership. It’s not just what you do and it’s not just what God does. We know we have a God who neither slumbers or sleeps (Psalm 121:4) and He is at work continually in the lives of human beings. But He requires that we work each day in His service, and that our work be considered and mindful, not random and reckless. This is why we not only read the Bible but study it. This is why we seek out fellowship with sober and mindful believers. This is why we pray for guidance and direction from the Holy Spirit. This is why we strive to do His will rather than our will.
“Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me. Nevertheless, not my will, but yours, be done.”
–Luke 22:42 (ESV)
We don’t often think about the Master having a choice as to being crucified. It’s an uncomfortable thought that Jesus could have just said “no,” and escaped that night as he prayed in Gethsemane rather than surrender to God’s will and death.
But he had a choice. He could have said “no.” Instead, he said, “not my will, but yours, be done.”
Jesus had served God and human beings flawlessly for three years. He was without sin, so for his entire lifetime, we have to believe he never sinned. But it wasn’t about what he did yesterday. It was always about what he was going to do next with each coming dawn. So it should be with us.
Soon, Christians and believing Jews will mourn the loss of our Lamb and rejoice in the resurrection of our King. He teaches us that there are days when we dine on ashes, but then, the ashes of the offering are removed. Then it is time for us to rise from those ashes at dawn and to serve God anew. Some days we feel as if we have failed and have been burned out. But there is a new day coming, like the resurrection from the dead. If we fail to serve God today, it is as if we are still in the tomb. If we resolve to approach the service of the King as the dawning light of a new day, then we rise with him and in some small measure, share in his glory.
Remove the ashes of yesterday’s service for it is done. The sun has set and darkness is here. Then rise from the cold and dead ash and fly up like sparks into the flaming dawn. Today is bright and clear. It is life from the dead.