“Transforming the mundane into the extraordinary.”

Our portion this week, Tzav, means “to order or command.” It would seem that the name challenges us to go beyond logic since it asks us to perform certain activities that a proud, apathetic, or defiant heart could not carry out. Let’s take a look.

First, does it make sense to offer God something that already belongs to Him? Tehillim (Psalms) 24:11 says that God created the world and everything in it. So, what’s the point of us bringing an animal to “sacrifice” to Him, to which He gave the breath of life? Or does it make sense to offer fine flour, an inert material as if God could be satisfied with loaves of bread?

At first glance, other religions created by men offered living beings to appease their gods, and in some cases, they even offered their children or sacrificed themselves in the name of these gods. What was the difference? Well, I believe that it is in the intention. God established an ordered system of rituals focused on eliminating the religious culture imposed in Egypt, in which only the religious castes could approach God, not ordinary men. Their gods had no time for mere mortals, and the only way they could relate to the divine was by placating their desires through the natural senses expressed through sexual behaviour, self-flagellation, cruelty toward animals, or the shedding of blood.

Instead, God brought a ground-breaking revolution, telling man, “I believe in you, and you may relate to Me, and by relating to Me you may reach your maximum potential in life.” That is why the rituals taught in the Torah are intended to enable a man to draw closer (korban – kerev) to the Eternal, to become a better version of himself. How can we be better? It is basically through our desire to approach Divinity. God is always near, and we can approach Him as expressed in the five Korbanot – the Olah (elevation offering) or the Mincha (grain offering), in the Korban Shelamin where we seek to foster peace, or in the Korban Cha’atah, to free us from present or past errors, or in the Korban Asham, to free us from guilt. The reason does not matter; the important thing is to draw closer to God.

With this, we can better understand what the writer of the letter to the Hebrews wrote in chapter 4:16 when he says: “Therefore let us draw near to the throne of grace with confidence, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in times of need.” Do you know what the problem is for people today? Nobody wants to draw close to God. This expression is captured by our prophet Isaiah in chapter 55:6-8 where he writes: “Seek the LORD while He may be found; call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way, and the wicked man his thoughts, and let him return to YHVH, who will have mercy on him, and to our God, who will be generous in forgiving. For My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways, says the LORD.” If we think about it, when does GOD ever stop being close or able to be found? Never. He holds and contains everything; we are the ones who, by our actions, stop seeking Him, but He is always close at hand.

Then why don’t we look for Him? Because we do not want to draw close, but why?

Approaching GOD implies certain conditions that are described in this portion, which leads to my second point. To perform their Divine service, the cohanim had to dress with honour and repeat certain seemingly useless jobs every day, but obedience and doing them with the proper intention elevated the cohen while being pleasing to GOD. We read in Vayikra 6: 3-4 “And the cohen shall put on his linen tunic and shall also put linen trousers over his flesh. And he will separate the ashes to which the burnt offering that was on the altar was reduced by fire, and he will put it next to the altar. And he will take off his clothes and put on other clothes and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.” Can you imagine wearing white which would get filthy with the ashes? Would you wear fine white clothes to clean out your garbage can?

The message is very simple, as Rabbi Moshe Cordovero says, this is equivalent to emulating the heart of GOD. When we take out the trash, our house is cleaner. The Eternal does the same, making living in His house more agreeable and pleasant. We can take out the “garbage” with gratitude, or we can think about the way that GOD cleans up our garbage (i.e., our transgressions and their consequences), by doing this task of removing this “waste” material, we can imitate GOD’s graciousness. In short, this simple act of removing ashes is like transforming a mundane act into a blessing, the physical world into a spiritual one. To come to this understanding, we must serve GOD with joy. How can we turn taking the garbage out of this world into a blessing? What activities do we consider to be like taking out the trash, and turning them into a service that elevates the Divine Name?

Later, we learn another command in Vayikra 6:5-6 “And the fire that is on the altar will remain burning; It will not be quenched, but the cohen will burn wood on it every morning and arrange the burnt offering on it and cause the fat of the peace offerings to be consumed on it. Perpetual fire must burn on the altar; It will not go out.” While it is true that this was done for obvious reasons – so that offerings were constantly burning, and it was necessary to continue putting wood on the altar so that the fire and heat would not go down – it has a deeper meaning. On the one hand, what is fire? According to Rabbi Noson Weiss, fire represents the driving force in man. It is that energy that allows us to move and function. Furthermore, fire is a physically visible element; it reveals the sacred fire of God and can turn physical elements into smoke, which was a pleasing aroma to GOD. So, when we serve, by putting on this firewood, which is strenuous work and not pleasant for the cohanim because it involves such physical exertion as well as exposure to the heat, we elevate an uncomfortable task and turn it into something sacred.

I was wondering how I could elevate myself through the use of my daily energy. How can I turn this driving force into something with a greater purpose? For example, when I prepare a talk for the Tuesday night group, or when I spend time with my parents and listen to them, these require “physical energy”. These activities are like adding wood to the fire. Then, fire also requires air (ruach), which is expressed through our thoughts. When we try to connect to the Infinite, messages are transferred to our brain in the form of thoughts that feed the Divine fire. Now, fire comes from Heaven.

We see this in Devarim 4:24 where it says, “For the LORD your GOD is a consuming fire.” This fire does not come from physical things or things that are ours. We see this clearly when Elijah placed water on his offering in front of the pagan priests, and GOD consumed everything on the altar (1 Kings 18: 21-45). We also see it in Vayikra 9:24 when he says that fire came out of the Presence of GOD and consumed everything on the altar for the inauguration of the service in the Mishkan. But what I love most about this image is that fire also consumes fat, and fat represents our ego, arrogance, and pride.

Finally, I would like to emphasize that apart from the cohanim, all the offerings mentioned here apply to all the people including the leaders. I love this because today leaders lack the humility needed to present themselves before GOD. They don’t understand that they fulfill a role, that they are special. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 7:20 says “There is certainly no righteous man on earth who does good and never sins.” We all make mistakes, and we all have faults; it is in our nature, and it doesn’t matter what our social, economic, or intellectual status is, what is important is how we respond. Do we approach GOD confidently or do we turn away, run, and hide like Adam and Eve or Cain did?

In 6:2 we read הִוא הָעֹלָה עַל מוֹקְדָה עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ כָּל-הַלַּיְלָה “hi ha’olah al mokedah al-hamizbe’ach kol-halailah ad-haboker; The burnt offering will remain burning on the altar all night until morning.” The word mokedah (flame or pyre) in the Torah is written with a smaller mem (מוֹקְדָה) which according to the Rebbe of Kotz means that the fire of GOD must burn within us, but it must be minimized with the intention of avoiding arrogance and pride on the outside. The fire within allows us to maintain our humility and when we understand how small we are, we can achieve greatness. Tzav is a call to be humble because the humble are cared for by God as we read in Tehillim 138:6.

My desire is that our acts of obedience go beyond our ability to reason, that we act with humility and transform each physical act into elements that elevate the Divine Name.

Shabbat Shalom

Mauricio Quintero