Tzav – Hagadol
March 20, 2013
Tzav: The Purifying Fire of the Olah
“This is the law of the burnt offering (‘Olah’). It is the offering which remains on the altar’s hearth all night until morning.” (Lev. 6:2)
What is the significance of the nighttime burning of the Olah offering on the altar?
Uplifting both our spiritual and physical aspects
The most important ceremony in the sacrificial service is dashing the blood around the foundation of the altar. What is the meaning of this ritual? The blood represents the soul. Dashing the blood on the altar fulfills the primary goal of the offering — cleansing and purifying the soul. “It is the blood that atones for the soul.” (Lev. 17:11) This service elevates the foundations of our spiritual side.
However, there is a lower aspect of life, residing closer to our physical side, our basic life-force. This aspect of life also needs to be elevated. We seek to refine even our physical tendencies and traits. This refinement comes from the powerful yearning to be close to God that flows through the entire nation by way of the holy service.
For this reason, the Torah emphasizes: “It is the (same) Olah”. The same Olah offering that elevates and ennobles the soul, also refines our baser character traits. While the soul is uplifted when the blood is dashed around the altar, the lower life-force is elevated when the offering is burned on the altar’s hearth. The holy Temple fire refines and purifies our physical nature.
Why is the offering burnt at night?
During the night, our corporal side is dominant. The noble light of the soul is diminished. During this hour of spiritual fatigue, the altar’s holy fire burns and purifies the offering’s physical remains. The nocturnal service ensures that life will not sink into the depths of crass materialism.
The offering is burnt until daybreak. When morning arrives, our soul awakens with all of its strength and light. It is ready to stand before God, alive and vibrant, in renewed splendor.
(adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 122
(Based on an idea heard from my Rosh Yeshivah)
The mitzvah of Pesach is one of a pair of mitzvoth which are unusual. The Mishna in keritot says that there are 36 mitzvot for which the punishment is karet. All of them are negative except for two. There are two mitzvoth aseh for which there is a punishment of karet, namely Pesach and Milah.
If somebody does not perform the mitzvah of milah then he is cut off. If somebody doesn’t perform the mitzvah of Pesach, likewise, he is cut off.
These mitzvot are very basic and severe and are intimately connected. They are pointed out in the Torah together. In fact, they are interdependent. The Torah tells us that one who has not performed the mitzvah of milah may not eat of the korban pesach. Even more, if he has in his family anyone who is uncircumcised, children or servants, then he too cannot eat from the korban pesach!
These mitzvoth were given even before Bnai Yisrael left Egypt. Hashem merited them to be involved with two mitzvoth. Why? Why are these two so important and interdependent?
These two mitzvoth represent the identification of the Jewish people. It is obvious that milah is the mark of identification of a Jew. But the same is true of the korban pesach which was given in Egypt when Jews had to declare themselves. Hashem told them on the 10th of Nissan to take a lamb for each household and put the blood on the doorposts and lintel on the night of the 14th. This was an act of boldness and an act of declaring Jewish identification.
Milah is Jewish identification on the individual level. But there is another kind of Jewish identity for the essence of being a Jew is more than being an individual who accepts torah and lives a life of torah.
The mitzvah of korban pesach was that a man shall chose a lamb for the family or the household and if his household was too small then he and his near neighbour should join together. In other words, the essence of the korban pesach is group identity. The basic social unit is the family, the household, the wider family which includes the neighbour as well. This is the key to what the korban pesach comes to tell us. It is not only a declaration of Jewish identity but of Jewish interdependence.
The korban pesach tells us that there can be no Jewish identity without areivut – without a sense of responsibly for my neighbour, for my fellow Jew.
Now we can understand, that if you have somebody in your household who is not circumcised and you are responsible for him then you cannot participate in the korban pesach because you have denied the elementary responsibility which you have for the group. You cannot declare yourself a member of a group and not live up to your group responsibility. This is basic and fundamental.
This group identity which started in Egypt has persisted in all generations. Even today, when there is no korban, the rabbis have designed the Seder in such a way that Jews can join together and help each fulfil their duties.
This is why the two mitzvoth are of such gravity. Anyone who denies either, reads himself out of the Jewish people. Anyone who denies milah reads himself out as an individual. Anyone who refuses to participate in the celebration of pesach reads himself out of group membership of the Jewish people.
The Torah says that these two mitzvoth were given in Egypt so that they should have merit to be redeemed? What does this mean?
Here was a people, who, for at least two centuries were enslaved, persecuted, hounded, their children decimated, they endured all kinds of degradation through no real guilt of their own. And even if they had sinned, were they more guilty than the Egyptians? Did they not deserve redemption regardless of any merits? It would seem that they didn’t.
The Rabbis tell us that it was one of the mercies of Hashem. That He saw that they had no merits and therefore gave them two mitzvoth, milah and pesach, so that they should engage in these mitzvoth and merit redemption. What does this mean?
The meaning is very simple. Redemption is much, much, more than the release for suffering. Avdus (slavery) and Cherus (freedom) do not exhaust all the possibilities. There is a third possibility. A stage when you can be out of avdus but not yet in cherus. Whenever you have a transformation, there is an intermediate stage which is strange.
Take a seed or an egg. A seed can turn into plant. An egg into a chick. But there is an intermediate stage where it is just rotten. It has lost its previous character but not yet gained its new character and if you interrupt it then, then it is worthless and unusable.
It is not enough that Avdus should cease. In order to go from Avdus to Cherus and acquire a true Geulah it was necessary to fill their lives with positive meaning. They had to acquire a positive identity not just cease to be slaves. Hashem gave them two mitvot to enable each person to acquire individual worth and the whole community to acquire the character and identity of an Am Olam.
Chag kasher vesameach