This evening, Jews around the world will read the story of the Exodus from Egypt. On the Sabbath before Passover, the passage we read from the Torah was much less pyrotechnical. Parshat Tzav contains a list of instructions for priests (who no longer exist in Judaism) on how to offer sacrifices (which we have replaced with prayers) in the traveling sanctuary that was first replaced by the Temple in Jerusalem and then abandoned altogether. Yet I find four important lessons in this reading for modern Jews--and perhaps for all of us.
The portion begins with the olah, the burnt offering. Any member of the community can bring this offering. We are told explicitly in the previous week's readings that if a household cannot afford to sacrifice a larger animal, a bird or even a measure of fine flour will do. Lesson #1: make your communities inclusive and participatory. Set dues that everyone can pay. Adopt rituals that give everyone a role.
Each day, the priest must go into the sanctuary and sweep up the ashes from the offering that was burnt the day before. Then he must take off his priestly robes and put on regular clothing to go dispose of the ashes. Lesson #2: Leaders must be a part of the community and serve it humbly.
The ashes are not dumped unceremoniously. The priest takes them to a designated spot, day after day, and that place becomes holy. Lesson #3: The sacrifices of the past must not be forgotten. They must be treated with respect.
All that being said, someone has to sweep away the old to make way for the new. If left to accumulate, ashes choke the atmosphere in which we are trying to worship. Lesson #4: Each day requires its own course of action, and perhaps new sacrifices from us.
The portion also tells us to keep an eternal light burning in the sanctuary and never let it go out. A rabbinical commentary reminds us that each of us is a sanctuary. Within ourselves, we need to keep alive the flame of desire for a better world, free from slavery and open to the creative participation of all people. As we approach the Exodus story tonight at the Passover Seder, let's keep in mind the image of the roughly-garbed priest taking the ashes out. And remember to honor the people--usually women--who cleaned the house for the holiday! Next year in a more equal and inclusive world.