In last week’s parasha, we read about the various types of korbanot, sacrifices. This week, in parashat Tzav, the korbanot are repeated, this time in the form of a priests’ manual telling the Kohanim how they are to perform their tasks.
The first thing they are told is that every morning, before the new day’s sacrifices begin, the Kohen is to remove the ashes remaining from the previous day. And like everything else in the Torah, even this homely little task doesn’t escape explanation.
The Sefer HaHinuch (attributed to Rabbi Aharon of Barcelona, 14th century, Spain) explains: “The purpose of the mitzvah is to enhance the sanctuary and beautify it to the utmost of our ability…. Beauty is added to the altar by cleaning out the ashes from where the fire has to be kindled; moreover, the flame burns well when there are no ashes beneath.”
Perhaps, but as the korbanot have become ever more remote, commentators have looked for less mundane explanations to make these ancient rituals meaningful.
This is how Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, Germany) understood the symbolism of taking up the ashes:
While the “taking up” of the ashes is meant to introduce the new day’s service in terms of what was accomplished on the preceding day, as a permanent reminder of these past accomplishments, the removal of the ashes from the camp conveys the thought that, at the same time, the Jewish nation must begin its task anew each day. The start of every new day summons us to set out upon our task with full, renewed devotion as if we had never accomplished anything before. The memory of yesterday’s accomplishments must not detract from the energy with which we must do our duty today. Thoughts of what has already been accomplished can spell death to what has yet to be done. Woe to him who rests upon his laurels in smug complacency, who does not begin the work of each new day with new, complete devotion as if it were the very first day of his life’s work.
I like this image — that built into the sacred system is a reminder that each new day is a new beginning, an opportunity to start over — but I think that Rabbi Hirsch has misidentified the danger. In my experience, most people don’t suffer from smugness and complacency, from a prideful belief that they have already accomplished so much that there’s no need to do anything more. I rarely see people “resting on their laurels.”
Rather, the danger in holding on to the past is that, for many people, it is demoralizing, even destructive. Too many people are trapped by the belief that their accomplishments and, indeed, the significant events of their lives, are all in the past. Since it will never be that good again, there’s no point in trying.
But just as allowing ashes to pile up on the altar would, in a short time, choke the fire of new sacrifices, holding on to the past can have terrible consequences.
You don’t need me to tell you that loss goes hand-in-hand with getting older. Most of us experience some diminishing of health and physical abilities as we age. And that means there is a choice to be made. You can cut yourself off from activities you used to love and refuse to pursue new ones because nothing will be the same now that you don’t see, hear, or get around as well as you once did, or you can choose to use all your abilities, diminished though they may be, to get as much out of life as possible.
So take everything you have learned and accomplished and experienced in the past with you and go forward to greet each new day as a new beginning.
Rabbi Joyce Newmark, a resident of River Vale, is a former religious leader of congregations in Leonia and Lancaster, Pa.