Tzav: Building community may demand some pushing

Shabbat HaGadol


Leviticus 6:1-8:36

Malachi 3:4-24

The first commandment in Parashat Tzav mandates that a descendant of Aaron must remove some of the ashes from the altar after each night. "The Kohen…shall lift up the ash of what the fire has consumed of the burnt offering on the altar, and place the ash near the altar" (Lev. 6:3).

Eventually, some of the Kohanim also had to perform the utilitarian task of clearing the pile of ashes from the altar, to keep the altar clean and to keep the ash pile from smothering the fire. The procedure described in this verse seems symbolic: taking up a token portion of last night's ash.

Each day's service in the Holy Temple began with this procedure: on weekdays, at the first sign of dawn, on festivals, even earlier. Apparently, the Kohanim felt it was an honor to perform this task, for the Mishnah tells us that many volunteered, so that the administrators of the Temple had to hold a kind of lottery to determine which would get the honor of elevating the ash (Yoma 2:2).

The Mishnah also recalls the days before the lottery, when the task belonged to the first Kohen to get there. In those days, the administrator would give a signal at dawn, and a Kohen would go up to the altar to remove the portion of ash.

Sometimes several Kohanim would rush the altar at once, ceding the privilege to the one who got there first. If two arrived at about the same time, the administrator would supervise a finger-counting procedure for choosing, similar to the methods that I remember children using to pick sides in schoolyard games (Yoma 2:1). And then, early one morning, "two arrived simultaneously, and ran up the ramp, and one pushed the other, and he fell and broke his foot." Then the court instituted a lottery every day (Yoma 2:2).

When the Chassidic Rebbe of Kutzk, Rabbi Menahem Mendel Morgenstern (1787-1859), taught this Mishnah, I suppose his students expected him to use it as an illustration of his famous definition of fanaticism: "A fanatic confuses the accessories as essential, and the essentials as accessory." Only a fanatic might get so eager to do a ritual that he physically hurts someone in the process.

Instead, the Rebbe of Kutzk made a different point. He read the Mishnah in a relentlessly literal fashion, perhaps willfully misreading. He observed, "`one pushed the other?' In the early generations, they meant for the sake of Heaven, so they did not care who got to do the service, therefore `one pushed the other' to do the service, so long as it was done. Not so in the later generations, when we have personal interests, so each one wants to do the service and not have it done by anyone else."

In the ideal religious community, as envisioned by the Rebbe of Kutzk, each one of us would care deeply about the performance of deeds of religious significance, but we would not care about who did them. We would derive pleasure from seeing each other succeed in fulfilling commandments. We would not complain to, or about, the gabbai (synagogue elder) who gave an honor to someone else, "so long as it was done."

This Shabbat has another name, Shabbat HaGadol, which some interpret to mean "the Shabbat of the Leader" or of the Rabbi, for on this Shabbat the rabbi traditionally lectures about the observance and meaning of Passover. Ideally, a Shabbat HaGadol lecture includes not only intellectual information about the holiday, but also advocacy for its observance. The rabbi does not aspire to enact Judaism for the community, but with the community.

As a community rabbi, I have come to realize that, in order to help build a community like the one the Rebbe of Kutzk saw "in the early generations," where "one pushes the other," I need to help do the pushing. A big part of my job resembles "pushing the other" to do religiously significant deeds: pushing, delegating, authorizing, entrusting, cajoling, coaxing, encouraging, empowering, nagging.