ILLUMINATING GARMENTS
March 22, 2016
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #1014, Parsha Thought, Tzav

TWO STAGES OF ASH REMOVAL

Among the services in the Sanctuary entrusted to the Kohanim-Priests was the removal of the ashes from the Altar. First the Kohen would remove some ashes and place them near the Altar where they would be absorbed by the earth. The remainder of the ashes would be taken out of the camp.

What is the deeper significance of this rather strange Mitzvah of removing the ashes in two stages and how does it relate to our own lives today, particularly now as we stand on the cusp of the Final Redemption?

The purpose of an animal sacrifice is to refine and elevate our own internal animal. And the goal is for it to be consumed by and subsumed within the fiery passion of the G-dly soul.

However, as we shall see there are base aspects of our personalities that are comparable to ashes that cannot be elevated. These aspects of our personalities (the “ashes”) must therefore be removed from the Altar and taken outside of the camp. There is no room for them in our lives. 

This premise can be questioned. If ashes are such a negative symbol why would some of them remain near the Altar? Furthermore, the Talmud states that during Festivals the Kohanim would allow the ashes to pile up into a huge mound on the Altar and described this mound as “the beauty of the Altar!”  How could ashes, the unredeemable aspects of our animal nature, be considered an enhancement to the Altar?

G-D DRIVEN HUMILITY

To answer this question we should start with the analysis of the removal of the ashes from the classic Chassidic work Derech Chaim (authored by the second Rebbe of Chabad, Rabbi Dovber, known as the Mitteler Rebbe):

In his analysis the Mitteler Rebbe reveals that the ashes are not exclusively suggestive of the negative forces of our animal souls. The ashes of the sacrifice are also symbolic of our humble feelings of inadequacy. These feelings arise in times of prayer, precisely when we are at the height of our spiritual journey. When our souls are on fire as we recite the Shma and are consumed with a heightened G-dly awareness, we then are overcome with a sense of how small we are. This initial feeling of inadequacy is actually a positive development, because it rids us of any and all traces of destructive ego.

Some of the ashes are therefore redeemable. These are the ashes that can be placed next to the Altar and be absorbed there because they represent the aspect of humility that can be elevated no less so than the offering of the sacrifice itself.

A SPIRITUAL SKIING EXPERIENCE MISHAP

But there is also an attendant danger to the humbling nature that accompanies our spiritual journey. The breaking of our egos and the resultant feelings of lowliness can degenerate into depression. Initially, our sense of lowliness is healthy because it derives from a heightened awareness of G-d and our desire to get closer to Him. It’s not about us; it’s about G-d.

However, since our egos have not been completely neutralized, this initial G-d oriented sense of humility can morph into an ego-driven deep depression. This depression, the Mitteler Rebbe writes, is not precipitated by G-dly awareness (as were the initial feelings of humility brought on by one’s meditation on G-d’s greatness). Rather, ironically, it is a product of the ego itself! We might be disappointed by our inadequacies because we have an inflated expectancy of ourselves. This, in turn, can lead inexorably to a destructive downhill path to getting angry at ourselves, and ultimately giving up trying to grow.

The situation might even degenerate further. Once we feel that we are spiritual failures, it could start us down the slippery slope into indifference. We lose our desire to please G-d and instead look to please ourselves by indulging in whatever will take away our depression. So what began as a spiritual journey might actually end with a gradual fall into the abyss. The entire sacrifice-prayer experience turns into a spiritual skiing exercise which ends when we smash into a tree on our way down. Ouch!

That is why there are two stages in the process of removing the ashes. First we must not allow our spiritual growth to make us arrogant.  The more we climb the proverbial ladder of prayer and get closer to G-d the more humble we become. This humility is healthy and must be placed in close proximity to the Altar to be absorbed there as an indication that it is a positive experience and is an auxiliary to the actual sacrifice.

However, we must be extremely vigilant not to allow this “ashes” consciousness to break our spirit and awaken the ego’s sense of worthlessness and depression. Whatever feelings of lowliness engendered by our heightened awareness of G-d must not give way to depression. The bulk of the ashes therefore had to be removed from the Altar and taken outside of the camp. There is no room for it in the realm of holiness.

We can now understand why the Talmud states that the pile of ashes during the Holidays were the beauty of the Altar, because that pile was reserved for the joyous festivals. In times of true G-dly joy, the danger of the ashes-humility degenerating into depression did not exist. Hence, it was an adornment to the Altar because it demonstrated that the feelings of self-abnegation engendered by their proximity to the Holy Temple and the revelation of G-d therein were all positive.

ISAAC’S ASHES

With this analysis we can answer a question posed by the Rebbe on the statement in the Midrash concerning the ashes left on the Altar that Abraham built for the sacrifice of his son Isaac. This, of course, was only a test and in the end Abraham substituted a ram for Isaac as the sacrifice. The Midrash states that its ashes were never removed from the Altar and stand to this day as a testament of Isaac’s self-sacrifice and serve as an eternal merit for the Jewish people.

Why didn’t Abraham (whom our Sages state observed the entire Torah even before it was formally given) fulfill the Mitzvah of removing the ashes? (See Likkutei Sichos Volume 25, p. 131, for two answers.)

The Altar of Abraham and Isaac was different. Their self-abnegation was so complete, as evidenced by their readiness for total self-sacrifice, that there was no danger of their humility turning into an unhealthy and egotistical form of depression. Indeed, Abraham said of himself that he was but “dust and ashes.” Their “ashes” were untainted and could therefore serve as perpetual reminders of their devotion to G-d.

THE ASH-HEAP OF HISTORY

It can be said that all of our history follows the pattern of the sacrifices. Thus, the final step of removing the ashes parallels the last days of our stay in exile. In this very sensitive period which can be compared to a bridge that takes us into the Messianic Age of Redemption, we must integrate the two functions of ash removal.

Although it may not seem that way to some, we are at the highest point of our spiritual journey because of all the cumulative effects of all the Mitzvos ever performed. Moreover, all of the self-sacrifice of so many millions of Jews over the millennia has elevated us to the pinnacle of closeness to G-d even if we are now not consciously aware of it. Thus, when we reflect on our collective achievements and how close we are to the climax of history when G-d’s glory will be fully revealed, we are humbled.

Thus, the Midrash states, Moshiach’s address to the Jewish people begins with the words, “Humble ones, the time of your Redemption has arrived.” We are humbled by the sacrifices our forebears have made and by the imminent prospect of seeing the revelation of G-dliness in the world.

This initial state of humility can be compared to the ashes that were removed from the Altar but placed alongside it. Perhaps it might even be compared to the tall mound of ashes that graced the Altar in times of joyous Festivals.

However, since we are still not out of Galus, we must still forestall the potential for humility to mutate into ego-driven depression. To allay this concern, we are commanded to take the ashes outside of our camp. There is no room here for sadness. On the contrary, the greatest display of self-abnegation is when we are able to revel in the knowledge that we are soon to experience the full revelation of Moshiach and the Messianic Age.

ILLUMINATING GARMENTS

There is a hint in the Torah that the removal of the ashes concerns the Messianic Age. The Torah commands the Kohen to wear “other-acheirim garments” for the removal of the ashes. “Acheirim” was also used as a nickname for the great Talmudic Sage, Rabbi Meir. The commentator, Or LaMeir (cited in the anthology, Yalkut Geula U’Moshiach), writes that the wearing of “acheirim” garments is an allusion to the Talmudic tradition that Rabbi Meir’s Torah scroll spelled the word ohr-leather (which describes the garment made by G-d to clothe Adam and Eve) with an aleph (instead of the prevalent spelling with the letter ayin), which translates as “garments of light.” While leather covers and conceals, light uncovers and reveals. In the Messianic Age, those aspects of life which obscure their G-dly nature will be transformed into illuminating light that will fully reveal the Divine.

What is the connection between the garments of light and the removal of the ashes?

It is clear that the final obstacle to entry into the state of Redemption is the need to get rid of the last vestiges of our negativity, which are the debilitating effects of an ego induced depression. This we do by promoting joy and light in all the Mitzvos (which are likened to garments) that we do.

Indeed, the word acheirim, according to the abovementioned work Or LaMeir, has the same numerical value as the words, “David, King of Israel is living and enduring.”  And the word for “the ashes-hadeshen” is numerically equal to the word satan-obstacle. By wearing these radiant garments we can get rid of the negative, obstructive and depressing forces of galus and bask in the unfiltered light of the Divine presence.

Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (http://beismoshiachmagazine.org/).
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