“Never Give Up Hope!”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In the opening verses of this week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, we learn the details concerning the priestly responsibilities when offering a Korban Olah, an Elevation offering that is completely burnt.

As part of the Olah sacrificial service, the priests are required to perform two separate actions with the ashes that are upon the altar. First they are required to perform Terumat ha’deshen, removing a scoopful of the previous day’s ashes and placing them near the altar. During this ritual the priest wears his standard priestly garments. When, however, a large quantity of ashes accumulates, we are told (Leviticus 6:4), “V’hoh’tzee et ha’deh’shen el mee’chootz lah’mah’chah’neh el mah’kohm tah’hohr,” and he [the priest] shall remove the ash [from the altar] to outside the camp, to a pure place. During this ritual the priest must remove his standard garments, and put on his old and worn garments.

The Beit Yaakov (cited by Otzar Hatorah) offers an inspiring metaphorical interpretation to the verse. The spiritual leaders of the Jewish people, the Kohanim, have an obligation to always strive to raise the “ashes,” meaning those Jewish brothers and sisters who are without any spiritual achievement, and “place them near the altar” in order to provide for them a connection to the sanctity and sacredness of their Jewish heritage.

Furthermore, the Beit Yaakov argues, even distant Jews, even the ashes that are removed outside the camp must be placed within “a pure place,”–again underscoring the obligations of Jewish leaders to their unaffiliated brothers and sisters. In order to properly care for these “ashes,” the leaders, teachers and rabbis of Israel themselves may have to put on their old and worn garments and “leave the camp.” Jewish leaders are never permitted to believe that any Jew’s spiritual embers are completely extinguished. It is the leaders’ sacred responsibility to provide every Jew with an environment that will help those Jews develop religiously and spiritually.

When we look around and see the millions of unaffiliated Jews and the millions of Jews who no longer identify as Jews, we often feel overwhelmed, unable to act. The situation has gotten so severe that many refer to it as a “Silent Holocaust.” And yet, we dare not give up hope. We must remember that even the large amount of embers that were removed from the altar were placed in a “mah’kohm tah’hohr,” in a favorable environment, with the hope that as a result of the influence of the purity, they too will come alive again and burn brightly.

Thirteen years ago I received an intriguing phone call from “Marc.” He told me that he and his non-Jewish wife, Kimberly, were Americans who had recently completed two years of teaching English as a Second Language in the southern most island of Kyushu in Japan. While in Japan, they listened to the National Jewish Outreach’s Crash Course in Basic Judaism that they found on the 613.org website. He stated that they were deeply inspired by the course.

While I was eager to respond to a Jew who wanted to learn more abut Judaism, I was particularly curious to learn why an intermarried young man living in Japan would happen to be searching for Jewish spiritual nourishment on the internet. So I invited them to spend a Shabbat in our home.

Over Shabbat, I had a chance to hear their story. Marc met Kimberly on the campus of California State University at Chico and they quickly became “an item.” From the conversation, it was evident that at the time Marc did not harbor particularly warm feelings about his Judaism. One day, however, while walking on campus, Marc encountered a skinhead who was drawing an SS lightening bolt insignia on his arm. Marc assertively confronted the skinhead, which was out of character for him, being a bit of a hippie. Calling the skinhead names and taunting him, Marc boldly stated that he himself was a Jew and that if the skinhead was so tough, he should do something about it! A large crowd gathered and the skinhead fled.

Kimberly was perplexed by Marc’s passionate reaction to the skinhead, especially since Marc had always appeared to be so ambivalent about his own Jewish feelings. She felt that there must be something more there, and suggested that they both take a Judaism 101 course. Although they found the course rather “academic,” as an extra credit project they elected to make a Passover seder. The seder sparked an interest about Judaism in them both that led to surfing the internet and the NJOP Crash Course in Basic Judaism.

After the Shabbat visit with my family, Kimberly and Marc moved to Bucks County, Pennsylvania. The NJOP staff guided them to the local Jewish outreach program. From time to time, we would hear from Marc and Kimberly, and were proud of the progress they had made Jewishly. Many years passed and we lost contact.

This past December, I received a call from Marc (who is now Mottle) from Israel. He said that he currently lives in Jerusalem with his wife (who had long ago converted to Judaism), whose name is now Batya, and their two children. He then added, that within the next few weeks he was to receive rabbinic ordination from Yeshivat Sulam Yaakov in Jerusalem.

Sure enough, several weeks later, I received a lovely photograph of Rabbi Mottle standing in front of the Western Wall, holding his ordination certificate and standing next to one of the rabbis of his yeshiva. He and his wife now live in the Nachlaot neighborhood of Jerusalem, where Mottle serves as Director of Outreach Programming for Isralight.

The Beit Yaakov was absolutely correct. The ashes and the embers must be placed in a clean and pure place so they may possibly come alive again and be inspired by the purity of the Torah. Despite the difficult challenges, we must rise up to meet those challenges and must never give up on any Jew. If it can happen to Marc and Kimberly, it can happen to anyone.

Never give up hope!

May you be blessed.

The joyous festival of Purim will be celebrated throughout the world this Thursday evening and Friday, the 20th and 21st of March (except in Jerusalem and other walled cities that celebrate three days of Purim starting Thursday evening through Sunday afternoon –another good reason to live in Jerusalem).

Happy Purim.