Tag Archives: ashes

Tzav: Ashes at Dawn

burnt-offering-altarHe 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.

Carlos Santana

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.

-Mike Ditka
US football player and coach

failureI’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)

Landron Paule_Histoire Sainte_Première Alliance_Droguet Ardant_Limoges 1991We 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.

Good Shabbos.

43 Days: Dust and Ashes in My Own Universe

I am but dust and ashes.

Genesis 18:27

Everyone must say, “The world was created for my sake.”

-Sanhedrin 37a

Rabbi Bunim of Pshis’cha said that everyone should have two pockets; one to contain, “I am but dust and ashes,” and the other to contain, “The world was created for my sake.” At certain times, we must reach into one pocket; at other times, into the other. The secret of correct living comes from knowing when to reach into which.

Humility is the finest of all virtues and is the source of all admirable character traits. Yet, if a person considers himself to be utterly insignificant, he may not care about his actions. He may think, “What is so important about what I do? It makes no difference, so long as I do not harm anyone.” Such feelings of insignificance can cause immoral behavior.

When a person does not feel that his actions are significant, he either allows impulses to dominate his behavior or slouches into inactivity. At such a time, he must reach into the pocket of personal grandeur and read: “I am specially created by God. He has a mission for me, that only I can achieve. Since this is a Divine mission, the entire universe was created solely to enable me to accomplish this particular assignment.”

When presidents and premiers delegate missions to their officials, those officials feel a profound sense of responsibility to carry out the mission in the best possible manner. How much more so when we are commissioned by God!

Today I shall…

keep in mind both the humbleness and the grandeur of the human being.

-Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski
“Growing Each Day, Kislev 1”

I guess that answer a query I made recently.

Is it arrogant and self-centered to believe that God has a plan for my one, small, individual life? After all, there are billions of people who live on Earth today. Untold trillions and trillions of human beings have been born, lived, and died all throughout the history of the human race. Only a tiny, tiny fraction of them have been mentioned in the Bible (or any other holy book), and of those people, we sometimes don’t know which ones we can take as literally being real humans who lived real lives, vs. some unknown scribe somewhere writing an allegory about someone named “Job” to make a moral point.

Not only is it incorrect to consider ourselves to be insignificant as individuals, it could actually be sinful. Faith and trust in God includes the belief that we are not only significant, but possibly very important since we have been commissioned to perform deeds in the plan of God.

There’s a certain amount of “mysticism” in the statement, “[s]ince this is a Divine mission, the entire universe was created solely to enable me to accomplish this particular assignment.” At least from a human point of view, it is extraordinarily unlikely that the entire universe was created just for me to do whatever God put me here to do. I suppose if we start winding down the road of some serious metaphysics, it might be seen otherwise, but I don’t think my brain can bend in that direction.

So here we are (I am) performing a balancing act, again. Running on the edge of a razor blade, trying to keep my balance and avoid being sliced to ribbons (by concepts, consciousness, or other people). Is that too dramatic? Maybe not, if I’m trying to assess and moderate equal portions of humility and being an agent on a “Divine mission.”

But that may explain our different experiences when at times, nothing seems to go right, and at others, when nothing seems to go wrong. Paul’s infamous “thorn” in his side (2 Corinthians 12:7) was what balanced him out and we know that he really did have a Divine mission (see Acts 9). We have the Bible to tell us all about the details Paul’s mission and for a Christian, it’s almost “old news.” However, for the rest of us, our particular “mission” can seem like something of a mystery.

Oh, it gets worse.

How many Christians “feel” as if they have a mission. A lot of the time, it’s to go into the ministry. We Christians sometimes get this weird idea that only Ministers can minister. But what do we do that doesn’t minister if we’re doing God’s will?

Well, right now I know why I’m doing this. I’m doing this because enough people have told me it matters to them that I do this. If that’s also the voice of God, I’m fine with that, too.

That’s how I summed up my response to the question I asked myself the other day: “Why am I doing this?”

I suppose I could just need constant reassurance that I’m doing the right thing, but that’s no way to run a “ministry” let alone a life. There will always be times when there will be no reassurance, when it seems as if the whole world is against your (and my) Christian faith, and you (I) have to depend on whatever internal moral compass God has provided to continue the journey so that we are (I am) walking in the right direction.

Not that the right direction is always easy.

In 2008, Rabbi Gavriel and Rivkah Holtzberg were among 200 people killed when terrorists attacked Mumbai, India. The Holtzbergs selflessly ran the Chabad house, a beacon of hope and kindness in a city filled with poverty and despair.

Day in Jewish History: Kislev 1

Most of us won’t have to face death in the service of God. Most of us won’t have to face the death of loved ones in the service of God. Most of us won’t have to raise grandchildren because our children died in the service of God.

But it does give you pause. I mean, there’s no promise intrinsic to our faith and trust that limits how much God will ask of you (or me). Especially in the western nations, people of faith aren’t used to working really, really hard in the service of God, at least not most of the time. Sure, we may go on the occasional mission trip to a “third world country” and for a week or two, live in conditions that are a far cry from our comfortable homes in our middle-class suburbs.

But as you may have noticed recently, just being a Jew and living in or visiting Israel can be very dangerous. One of the horrible ironies of this latest terrorist attack was this:

The names of the three people who were killed Thursday by a rocket attack in Kiryat Malachi have been published, and one of whom, it was just discovered, was an emissary of Chabad involved in outreach in India, and was in Israel on a short visit in order to give birth and pay respects to the Chabad victims of the Mumbai terror attack in 2008.

Mirah (nee Cohen) Scharf, the 26-year-old victim of today’s attack, was a “shlucha (female emissary)” to New Dehli, India, visiting Israel for the memorial service of Gabi and Rivka Holtzberg, the Chabad emissaries who were victims of the Mumbai terror attack. The Hebrew anniversary of their brutal murder is today.

-Annie Lubin
“Mirah Scharf, Killed by Missile, Laid to Rest”

God, please be merciful to the injured and dying of your people Israel. Be merciful to those who live in harm’s way. Be merciful to the children who wake up every morning wondering if today they will be killed, and go to sleep each night fearing that they will be murdered in their sleep.

There were periods of time when R. Yekusiel Liepler, a chassid of the Alter Rebbe, davened Shacharit, Mincha and Maariv one right after the other; there was no time for intervals.

“Today’s Day”
Sunday, Kislev 1, Rosh Chodesh, 5704
Compiled by the Lubavitcher Rebbe
Translated by Yitschak Meir Kagan

Compared to that, the uncertainty in attending a local church and sometimes being criticized for it doesn’t seem so intimidating.

Blessings upon Israel and her people, the children of Abraham, and of Issac, and of Jacob.

If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill. Let my tongue adhere to my palate, if I fail to elevate Jerusalem above my foremost joy.

Psalm 137:5-6 (Stone Edition Tanakh)