10 Nisan 5780

April 3, 2020

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36), teaches us that the priests are charged with performing all the sacrificial duties in the Tabernacle. Only they have full access to the altar upon which the offerings of the people of Israel are brought, in service to God. Our Torah portion explains that their special status carries with it special responsibilities. They must make sure that the sacrifices are offered properly. But they also are exclusively commanded to clean up after themselves.

This is the mitzvah, the commandment, of t’rumat ha-deshen – the clearing away of the ashes and residue of the sacrifices. It is significant that this is a commandment entrusted to the priests no less that the Yom Kippur ritual or other ceremonies performed on behalf of Israel. The burning of all the flesh and other materials was a sacred means for drawing close to God. Yet this holy practice was realistically considered. It was recognized that these gifts to God would produce, not only a feeling of holiness and closeness to the Divine, and not only signal Divine love and forgiveness. They would just as surely produce and accumulate dirt.

The dirt itself was considered holy. And the act of cleaning that dirt required the activity of a priest, and the priest had to be dressed in priestly garb, although it was clothing appropriate for getting dirty. (6:3-4)

While this Temple ceremony has been defunct since the Temple’s destruction, almost 2000 years ago, the Torah lesson is timely, especially during this time of Passover cleaning. We all make dirt, even when we strive to do what is holy. And we are all responsible for cleaning up our dirt, whether physical or spiritual.

Our custom on Yom Kippur is to confess our sins by mentioning each of them in a song – “ashamnu, bagadnu…” Why should we sing about our sins? But our Torah portion teaches us that we are not singing about them; we are singing as we remove them, as we do our spiritual cleaning.

The story is told that the Baal Shem Tov, once came to a town for the Days of Awe. He was told that the rabbi of the town led all the confessional prayers with song. When the Baal Shem Tov asked him why he sang these prayers, that rabbi answered: “Imagine a servant cleaning the courtyard of the king. If he loves the king he is very happy cleaning the refuse of the courtyard, and sings and whistles while he works. That is what we are doing when we cleanse our hearts and souls, which are God’s sanctuaries and courtyards.”

Cleaning up the dirt we make is, itself, a dirty job. When we take that responsibility seriously we may accept that process as a sacred one and perhaps even take some joy and satisfaction in it. Imagine if we each made the commitment to clean up all of the shmutz of our lives.

As my colleague and friend, Rabbi Jack Romberg, rabbi emeritus of Temple Israel, Tallahassee, Florida stated:

Watching the posts, and even worse, the comments on Face Book, demonstrates the shmutz in our lives. When people share their beliefs, whether in religion or politics, the discussion in the comments often takes an evil, nasty turn.  The name calling and condemning of someone for expressing a particular view is just plain low class and wrong.  It is totally fine to disagree, but the wording is so often terrible.  The ugliness of social media is highly exemplified by political discussions.  Part is the meanness, and a large part is also the sharing of falsehoods instead of true facts.  All of this denigrates a media that has the potential to provide situations for communicating divine presence.

How can social media raise divine presence through what we share from our insides? 

Show how you care for others.  Celebrate special occasions for love ones.  Teach about your beliefs in a way that does NOT condemn others, but shows what is inside of your soul.  The posts can be serious, entertaining, or humorous.  If you care more about healing the world, you will not tear others down.  Instead, openly explain how you have reached your belief.  True liberalism is acting with an open mind to listen to other perspectives and accepting a truth that might be opposite your opinion.  Don’t necessarily agree with other opinions, but think about them.  True conservatism is about respecting individual rights and knowing how and when it is best to limit government intervention.  It is about preserving things of value and holiness with respect for authority.  The Talmud teaches that there are multiple perspectives God considers worthy.  God cares more about how we interact than a particular method to solve a problem.

In this difficult time we will increase God’s presence through caring, not condemning.  We need to stop creating more dirt – rather, we need to open our souls to each other.  That is how we will rebuild our world in a better way.