Saturday, March 24, 2007

Parshat Tzav

This week's portion begins with something strange. The Cohen Gadol is commanded to remove some of the ashes from the altar every morning, and place them outside the Temple. Only he can do this, and it seems strange that such a menial task should be given to one so important. The Hebrew term for this procedure is terumat hadeshen. Terumah means 'elevating' and is usually associated with particularly holy things, however this part of the service appears to be one of the least holy.
"The Cohen will wear his fitted linen tunic... he shall pick up the ashes of what the fire consumed... on the altar. He shall remove his garments and put on other garments, and he shall remove the ashes to the outside of the camp, to a pure place." (Leviticus 6; 3-4). Rashi (ibid.) explains that it is not an obligation for the Cohen to change his clothes, but the Torah is teaching us good manners. He should change so that his priestly garments should not become soiled. Rashi uses the analogy of a servant before a master who should wear different clothes for preparing the food and pouring the wine.
The seven preparatory days in which the Cohanim, the Mishkan and all the utensils were sanctified and dedicated for holy use is described at the end of the portion. During this period Moshe served as the priest, since the Cohanim had not yet been sanctified. The Talmud (Ta'anis 11b) finds that Moshe wore a plain white tunic, and Tosefos (Chagiga 6b) explains that this was for practical reasons. Had Moshe worn the priestly garments, this would mean that it is permissible for anyone to wear them. In addition to this, the vestments had not been consecrated for service, and had Moshe worn them this would have taught us that in the future (e.g. the Second Temple) the priestly garments could be worn before consecration. It is clear why Moshe could not wear priestly clothing, but why should his garments be plain white?
The Cohen Gadol wore plain white clothing when he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur. The Talmud (Yoma 23b) entertains the possibility that the Cohen should wear the clothes in which he entered the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur for the daily removal of the ashes. Though the Talmud reject this suggestion we have to understand the assumptions underlying this suggestion.
One of the greatest dangers facing a person in a position of authority is that it can lead to pride. Judaism views pride as equal to idolatry in its severity. It is therefore of the utmost importance that the Cohen Gadol, as the intermediary between G-d and the nation, should not fall victim to pride. Clothing brings honour to a person, as we see from Rabbi Yochanan who would refer to his clothes as ‘my honourable ones'. Though he has been sent to perform the holiest task on the holiest day, by wearing plain garments the Cohen Gadol retains his humility. Similarly, Moshe, the most humble of all men, wore a plain white tunic when consecrating the Mishkan and Cohanim. He allowed no room for his pride.
We can now understand why it is important for the Cohen Gadol to personally remove the ashes from the altar. By performing such a menial task he is reminded daily of the need for humility. Since the very act itself is one designed to instill humility, there is no need for him to wear the white garments of Yom Kippur. Maybe this is the reason for the name terumat hadeshen. Through the humility which this act instills the Cohen is actually elevated, as the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) states: If someone chases after honour, it flees from them, but if they flee from honour it comes to them.

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