This weeks parasha continues the theme of sacrifice, as most of Vayikra will. This week involves a considerable amount of repetition from last week. The reason for this, according to the Ramban is that the previous parasha dealt with the sacrifices that b’nai Israel was to bring and this week’s parasha deals with the actual procedure the kohanim use in their offering.
This week, let’s look at one of the aspects of the life of a priest. Sometimes we get the impression that the priesthood was this glorious occupation and the priests spent their days offering sacrifices and teaching the people Torah. Often, however, there were much less glorious things to be done. The first thing described in this week’s parasha is the procedure the priests were to use in cleaning the ashes from the altar. Every morning the ashes needed to be separated and taken out of the camp. This was a dirty, uncomfortable job. The fire on the altar was kept burning all the time and the ashes needed to be separated from this burning heap of wood and animal parts. He threw any parts that had not been consumed back on the fire and gathered up the remaining ashes and carried them outside the camp. In the hot desert sun this sounds like a job no one would want. But sometimes the work of the priest was menial.
Tractate Yoma tells us a different story, however. It says that originally, whoever wanted to remove the ashes at the side of the altar could do so, assuming that there was a ready list of volunteers. And if there were many volunteers, they would ‘run and mount the ramp..’ in a sort of competition to see who would get the privilege of removing the ashes. These priests understood something very important. Even the tasks we consider most menial are a great privilege done in the service to almighty God. The job may be hot and dirty but they did it with joy and eagerly anticipated it, because to them it was no less important that offering the sacrifice or sharing with the people or any other duty. They were all done in service to the King and in His Kingdom, there are no insignificant jobs.
We would do well to learn the lessons of these priests, particularly those of us who are in visible leadership positions. Those of you who have congregations to shepherd know that there are a lot of things that need to be done before services. The meeting place has to be cleaned and set up, personal preparation needs to be made, the toilet bowl must be scrubbed. When we can get on our knees in the bathroom with as much joy as when we stand behind the bema or sing a song of praise, then we will have learned the true value and privilege of service.
This week we continue with the various offerings and sacrifices and we learn a little about the duties of the kohanim (the priests). One of their duties is described in 6:4.
“Then the kohen shall take off his garments and put on other garments and carry the ashes out of the camp to a pure place.” Every day the ashes on the altar from the previous day’s sacrifices had to be removed by the priest and taken outside the camp. Aside from it’s obvious necessity, what is the significance of this action?
It tells us what our attitude should be about or life, past, present and future. The ties to the past are obvious because the past is not to be forgotten. The priest wears old clothes and removes the ashes from the previous day’s sacrifice. Old garments, old ashes, a reminder of what has gone on before. We are constantly told to look back in Scripture, to remember what has gone on before. Our celebration of Purim this week and Pesach to come are festivals of remembrance. They help to keep the power and salvation of G-d first and foremost in our thoughts. The tzitzit and the mezuzah are daily reminders of our duty as the people of G-d.
But the past is a double edged sword. We can gain courage or comfort from it, reflecting on the greatness of our G-d and how he has worked. Or we can let it paralyze us. Too often we look at the past and we think that the things that happened there somehow disqualify us from experiencing the blessing of G-d. Someone hurt us, we had a bad experience, we did something horrible, we sinned grievously. We mourn, we are bitter, we are depressed and we allow the goodness of G-d for His children to pass right by us. We stay out of fellowship and miss out on the blessing others desire to give to us and that which we can give to them. When we let our past have this kind of influence, everyone loses.
The lesson of the ashes is this. Yesterday’s sacrifices are gone and the residue is good for nothing, it has to be taken out of the camp to make room for the offerings and service of a new day. The past, while not forgotten, moves to the background. We are not to let it take precedence in our lives, either positively or negatively. We can neither rest on the laurels of our service in past days nor or we to allow the worthless ash of a broken life hinder us from today. We have today, we have this moment, we have a clean slate on which we can write something new. The altar is clean and we have a new opportunity to bring an offering upon it. This moment has never happened before, what is it going to be like? Have you cleaned off your altar so you can make the most of it for Him and His glory? Yahushua came to clear the slate of our lives so we could be pure vessels, living sacrifices for Him. Is your vessel clear, is your present full? We live in this moment, and it is all you have. Use it wisely.
This parasha continues to delve into the various offerings brought by the people for various reasons. In the midst of these descriptions, however, we occasionally get a glimpse of some other aspects of the priestly duty. The priest in Israel had a lot of functions. He was the physician, the building inspector, the teacher, the mediator, the butcher. Being a priest was not an easy job, with days spent butchering animals in the hot sun in front of a blazing fire. And then they had to take out the garbage.
The first section of chapter eight deals with this dirty yet necessary task. The flame on the altar was to be kept burning perpetually so as animals and wood were consumed on the altar, the new material had to be separated from the old. This old material, wood, bones and ashes, were collected at the side of the altar until the pile grew to the point it had to be taken outside the camp. To do this the priest changed his clothes and performed the task.
Our priesthood, like that of the Kohen in ancient Israel, is of a varied nature. Our problem is that too often we separate our lives into compartments, we differentiate between secular and sacred. In our example, what is more sacred-offering the sacrifice or taking the ashes out of the camp? The answer is neither, they are both essential. Both are sacred duties necessary for the fulfillment of the priest’s duty under Torah. When a teacher teaches on Shabbat, everyone agrees they are performing a ‘religious’ function. When that same teacher cleans the shul during the week, is that any less sacred? Is it any less important to prepare the home for the upcoming seder by cleaning it thoroughly than to actually sit down and enjoy the seder? All our lives are bound up in our duty to G-d, there is no real division between sacred and secular.
There is a difference, however. To take the ashes out of the camp, the priest changed his clothes. It would have been inappropriate for him to get his priestly vestments dirty with this task, just as it would be inappropriate to wear a suit and tie to clean under the sink preparing for pesach. It is similar to the difference in which a servant brings food to the king in his best clothes yet wears something different when he works in the kitchen. The same applies for us. When we go to the shul for prayer and worship, we are coming into the presence of the king and we should be dressed differently that we do the rest of the week. We should put on our best to come into the presence of the King. Like so many other things in Torah, it is a reminder of who we are and Who we are worshipping, it helps put us in the proper mindset to bow before the throne of the King of kings and Lord of lords.
This parasha contains more material on offerings and concludes with the installation of Aaron and his sons to serve as priests for the nation. As you have noticed through the torah there are various penalties for sin. Murder, adultery and Shabbat breaking incur the death penalty, there are various monetary penalties for theft, offerings required for ‘religious’ infractions and some commands, like those surrounding kashrut, have no penalties ascribed. Some sins have a peculiar penalty most translations state as ‘that soul shall be cut off from it’s people’. In our parasha it appears in 7:20, 21 and 27. Literally it will read ‘each soul (nefesh) eats any/all blood the soul (nefesh) himself will be cut off from nation’. It is for eating the flesh of an offering while knowingly contaminated or any person who eats blood will suffer this consequence.
Traditionally, this is understood as a person who soul is excised and who will suffer a premature death. A rather serious consequence if true. As we study this word, we will get a better understanding of why it is so serious because we will see that it is related to the very nature of the covenant itself.
The word in question is ‘karat’ spelled kaph, resh, tav. It various meanings include cut off, cut down, kill, eliminate, destroy. It’s ancient pictographic meaning will include the kaph-a palm, bend or curve, a resh-head, top, beginning, first and tav-a mark or sign. Put all this together and you have the idea that karat is the mark of bending the head. This can mean death. In Gen 9:11, God says he is going to ‘cut off’ all flesh and we know what it meant then. In Joshua 7:9 it refers to the annihilation of the people of Israel. In II Chron 2:15 it is used for cutting trees and in II Sam 20:22 it is the cutting off of the head. It is used again in Gen 17:14 in our more ambiguous way, the seed of Avraham that is not circumcised will be ‘cut off’ from his people. The key is in it’s other meaning which is often overlooked in translation. Karat is also another word for covenant. It is used that way for Avraham (Gen 15:8), for Israel (Ex 34:10-27), and for David and Jonathan (I Sam 27:18). Such use goes back to the beginning. Job, generally agreed to be the oldest written work in the Bible, uses Karat both ways-cut a tree (14:7) and as a covenant (31:1). What does a covenant have to do with cutting, or with our ancient meaning, the mark of a bowed head?
The most obvious is that to make a covenant, you had to cut up an animal as a sacrifice. This was true for Avraham and Israel in our pervious references, and in many other places. The point was that the animal was to remind each participant that if they broke the covenant, they would become like the animal. What does this have to do with our ancient meaning? When one makes a covenant he gives up some freedom and authority. He ‘bows his head’ in subservience to the requirements of the covenant and the blood shed is the mark of that subservience. As people in the eternal covenant made through Messiah, His blood is the mark of our subservience, we are now slaves to righteousness. The consequences of negating that covenant may be severe. In our parasha the touching of contaminated things or eating blood may seem insignificant until you understand that such a person is willfully raising his head out from under the covenant and bringing contamination into the holiest place on earth, an act that will have a negative impact on everyone else there even if they don’t see it or know it. By willfully acting in such a manner, they are destroying the covenant and are no longer part of the people. Their soul has been cut off. Hebrews says that a person in the Messianic covenant who turns away may not be brought back. Sha’ul says that some in his congregations were dying because they were eating and drinking the symbols of the covenant in an state of spiritual uncleanliness. In the Torah, the penalty may include physical cutting off as well, either at the hand of man or God. Covenant obligations are very serious things. We must fulfill our part thoroughly and wholeheartedly because the consequences of not doing so may be disastrous. Let us thoroughly examine ourselves as we head into the feast of unleavend bread, and eliminate sin from our being.