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Pluralistic PerspectivesMaking Meaning of the Ashes in Our Lives

“…This is the Torah of the burnt offering… let the priest wear his cloth garments…and lift the ashes from the fire that consumed the burnt offering… and place them near the altar” (Leviticus 6:2-3).

When we think of sacrifices and gifts to others, we think of important things: objects of beauty and value, gestures that sacrifice our time and money and show our love and concern for others. The world would not work without these sacrifices, and we could not connect with others and with God without making them. Without offering or giving something up, what would love really mean? What would commitment really mean if we never made a meaningful effort to show it?

The whole book of Leviticus is about showing such effort; we are already off to a running start in last week’s Torah reading, in which we saw so many different kinds of giving to God, to the priest, and even to those around us, including animals and baked goods, rich people’s gifts and poor people’s gifts. But in this week’s Torah reading, Parshat Tzav, we see how devotion is not always about true “sacrifice”, about offering big things or making big efforts. It starts off by reminding us that there is another kind of gift we can make to those around us, to our communities and people, and to God as well: admitting our failures and weaknesses, taking down our defenses, and being honest with those around us. That we might call the sacrifice of the ashes.

Every day the priest shovels the ashes from the altar, from the organs that have been sizzling on the fire all night. These ashes are much like the things in life that didn’t work out the way we intended them, the fallout of the unsavory things we have done that we wish we would never do,. Sometimes no one else sees these burnt pieces of our lives.

The ashes of our lives are things we would rather not smell, rather not look at – we might like to pretend that they never existed. But they are real. They remind us of how we took the wrong path, how we hurt others by our actions, how people were burned by the fire of our anger or self-righteousness. As important as it is for us to be “on fire”, passionate and excited about what we do for our world and for all those around us, and to be inspired by our own sacrifices and efforts, it is as also vital that we find ways to acknowledge the mistakes we make, and the people who may be hurt by those mistakes.

Ashes—what is left after the fire has gone out–do not disappear just because we forget about them. If we can take notice of them, they can enable us to rebuild relationships and can even be a way of getting us closer to God. Ashes should not be merely left on the altar, treated if they weren’t there, but neither can they simple be tossed away out of sight and out of mind. Rather, they need to be elevated, sanctified, allowed into our lives so that we can deal with them appropriately.

The great sacrifice of the ashes is accomplished by taking responsibility and cognizance of what remains. It is not always clean; it may not fit well with our self-image, or our plans of moving forward. We may feel sullied by thinking about dealing with it, and want to get rid of it. But before the priest takes the ashes outside of the camp, he places them right on the side of the altar, a suggestion that they are just as much a part of the process of giving and connecting (the word for sacrifice in Hebrew, korban, literally means “coming close”), as all the bulls, lambs, and loaves that were eaten with gusto.

Our lives are filled with fire and action, with moving forward and upward, getting things sizzling and happening. But Parshat Tzav asks us to also remember to look at the consequences of what we do, not to be so stiff-necked that we can’t look to the side to see the collateral damage of our actions–even when they are necessary or justifiable. Every day, the priest offering the heartfelt sacrifice of any man or women would inevitably see and need to deal with those ashes. I would like to imagine that it prompted him—the holy representative for all of us–to think: “While I am moving forward, I realize that there will be ashes. I need to sanctify them with my reflection, and make them, too, an integral part of how I live my life, and who I am and who I want to be.”

But the Torah does not want us to dwell too long on our failings or fill our lives with regret. According to the great commentator Rashi, the next verse which says that the priest would change his clothes and take the ashes outside of the camp refers to when the pile of ashes near the altar got too full. We should always be collecting ashes nearby, reminding us of our failures or the hurts we have caused, but never in an overwhelming pile that prevents us from offering the next sacrifice, moving forward with our next important project or grand effort.

May we all continually notice the ashes littered around us, collect them, and—in manageable quantities–keep them lovingly close by so that we may truly see them. Even as we want to move on, we should never fail to first consider the ashes created by the fire of our sincere offerings, keeping them in mind as we proceed with the great acts of devotion and commitment in our lives.

Rabbi Asher Lopatin is President of the Modern Orthodox Yeshivat Chovevei Torah Rabbinical School, and is a musmach (ordinee) of Rav Ahron Soloveichik. He studied Islamic fundamentalism on a Rhodes scholarship at Oxford, and was for 18 years the rabbi of Anshe Sholom B’nai Israel Congregation in Chicago.