“Judaism’s Upbeat View of the Past”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

In last week’s parasha, parashat Vayikra, the Torah addressed its message to those Israelites who sought to atone for a sin or express joy and gratitude by bringing an appropriate sacrifice. This week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, addresses Aaron and his sons, rather than the people, to teach the priests the details of the service they are to perform when they offer sacrifices.

The very first service of the day that the Kohen was to perform was known as Terumat Hadeshen. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888, the great Bible commentator and leader of German Jewry) sees Terumat Hadeshen not as a service of the new day just beginning, but rather as a final concluding act of the service of the preceding day. This service must be performed by an “appropriate” priest who is dressed in the formal linen vestments. The priest scoops out a kometz (handful) of ashes from those remaining from the previous day’s sacrifices, and lays them down “deliberately” to the left, on the east side, next to the ramp of the altar.

The Talmud in Yoma 23b and 24a, emphasizes the requirement that this action be done gently in its entirety without the ashes being scattered. This kometz of ashes, like the handful of the Mincha (Leviticus 6:8), is to be laid down as a remembrance of the commitment represented by yesterday’s sacrifices to G-d and to His holy Torah. It is placed in the eastern part of the courtyard, to represent the permanent consciousness of the nation.

The inner meaning of the Terumat Hadeshen according to Rabbi Hirsch, is in stark contrast to much of modern day thinking. How often do we start our day with thoughts of starting afresh, deliberately leaving behind the discomforts, travails and failures of yesterday? Why recall the frustrations of the past, when we can start with a clean slate for the future? Rabbi Hirsch maintains that the symbolism of Terumat Hadeshen, lifting up of the ashes, represents a philosophy that reflects exactly the opposite.

Says Rabbi Hirsch:

Today brings no new mission. It has only to carry out, ever afresh, the mission that yesterday too was to accomplish. The very last Jewish grandchild stands there before G-d, with [his] predecessors in the whole passing of the centuries, [offering] his contribution to the solution of the task given to all generations of the house of Israel. The Jewish “today” has to take its mission from the hand of its “yesterday.”

This optimistic interpretation of Rabbi Hirsch underscores Judaism’s singularly positive attitude towards life. Yesterday’s frustrations, mistakes, errors and sins are not something to be erased from our consciousness, but rather something to be held on to firmly. The Torah does not view mistakes as intended to engender guilt or depression, but rather to be seen as a way station in our perpetual growth and our never-ending efforts at self improvement. What we did yesterday was an investment in tomorrow’s future–a foundation that was laid for the structure of tomorrow. The past should be looked upon with elation and joy, rather than frustration. In fact, yesterday we ascended one step on a ladder leading us closer to heaven.

In our never-ending quest for perfection, frustration can easily beset us. But, if we look back at how far we’ve come, and value what we did in the recent past, even if we faltered, we can feel positive about ourselves and our achievements. Ultimately, we discover that the ashes are not really ashes, destroyed fragments of what we did yesterday, but rather the propellent driving us toward tomorrow.

Those who look upon the investments of yesterday from an optimistic and upbeat perspective, have a far better chance of reaping tomorrow’s windfalls.

May you be blessed.

This Shabbat, the Shabbat that immediately precedes Passover, is also known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat. On this Shabbat, we read a special Haftarah from the prophet Malachi 3:4-24, in which we find the verse: “Behold I send to you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and awesome day of G-d.” For more information on Shabbat Hagadol see Tzav 5762-2002.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Wednesday night, April 8th and continue through Thursday and Friday, April 9th and 10th. The seventh and eighth days of Passover begin on Tuesday night, April 14th, and continue through Wednesday and Thursday, April 15th and 16th.

Chag Kasher v’Samayach. Wishing all our friends a wonderful, joyous and meaningful Passover.