Tzav 5783 – Mah Nishtanah
Today I was working with some students at my day school (Solomon Schechter of Metropolitan Chicago) to prepare for our annual chidon haTanach (Bible contest) which will take place in a few weeks. We went around the room and every student shared their favorite book of the Bible. For me, this went better than expected because I was thrilled that each student even had a favorite book of the Bible in the first place (with a well thought out explanation as to why!). But one student asked if they could share their least favorite book, and they said Vayikra. I asked why, and they said it was because it felt boring and mundane with lots of rules and rituals that are inapplicable or don’t relate to us today. I agree in theory, I said, but that’s only if you just take these words at face value. That is not how our chasidic commentators understand these texts, and I am continually inspired by how they reread texts to create meaning for us in our lives today.
This week’s parsha is Tzav, the second parsha in the book of Vayikra, and at the very end there are a few verses about a minor but important priestly act known as Terumat Hadeshen, “the lifting of the ashes”.
וְהֵרִ֣ים אֶת־הַדֶּ֗שֶׁן אֲשֶׁ֨ר תֹּאכַ֥ל הָאֵ֛שׁ אֶת־הָעֹלָ֖ה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֑חַ וְשָׂמ֕וֹ אֵ֖צֶל הַמִּזְבֵּֽחַ׃
“and the priest shall take up the ashes that remain from the fire of the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar.” (Vayikra 6:3)
At first glance this instruction might simply be to keep the area clean, beautify the sanctuary, and to help the fire burn brighter. But Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch explains that the removal of the ashes speaks, on a metaphorical level, to the need for us to approach everything we do as if we are doing it for the first time. There are so many things that we do for the first time with joy and enthusiasm, but after doing these things repeatedly, sometimes day in and day out, our joy and enthusiasm begins to wane. Removing the ashes allows us to start the next day as if we are doing it for the very first time.
We are approaching Passover next week, the most celebrated Jewish holiday. The seder brings with it joy and celebration as well as memories of seders past. We want to hold onto all of those incredible memories, but at the same time we don’t want the seder to be exactly the same every year. How can we “clear out the ashes” in our memory and find a way to approach this Passover and this redemption as if we’re experiencing it for the very first time?
I wrote this song, Mah Nishtanah, as my own fun take on the order of the seder and experiencing Passover through new eyes each year.
Enjoy, and wishing you a chag kasher v’same’ach,