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Parashat Tzav 5775 — 03/25/2015

Parashat Tzav 5775 — 03/25/2015

The opening paragraph of our portion, which is recited daily in the morning liturgy, describes the ritual of the morning daily offering (tamid).  The very first thing done in the Temple in the morning is one of the kohanim removes a shovelful of ash from the altar, and places it next to the altar.  This ash is the remains of the offerings of the previous day, which were allowed to be burned overnight.  Then, he would change into older, slightly worn clothes, and remove the accumulation of ash from the top of the altar, and take it outside the walls of Jerusalem to a ritually clean place.  Then, one of the kohanim would light two logs of wood on the altar, in preparation for the activity of the new day.

Rav Kook finds significance in these procedures:

Thus we see that the Olah service involved three different locations, with descending sanctity:

    • The fire on top of the altar
    • Next to the altar, where a shovelful of ashes was placed
    • A ritually clean place outside the camp for the remaining ashes.

He then relates these three levels to the stages of prophecy and its expressions:

    • The prophetic experience is a blaze of sacred flames inside the human soul, a divine interaction that transcends ordinary life…
    • However the prophet wants to extend the impact of this lofty experience so it can make its mark on his character traits and inner life. … This is a secondary level of holiness, analogous to those aspects of life that are close to the holy itself, where impressions of the sacred vision may be stored in a pure state
    • The lowest expression of the prophetic vision is in its public revelation.  Informing the people of the content of Gd’s message, and thereby infusing life and human morality with divine light – this takes place at a more peripheral level.

In this formulation Rav Kook may be following the description of the three “upper” sefirot, or emanations of the Divine, which lie at the basis of creation: Chochmah (“wisdom”), Binah (“Intellect”) and Da’at (“Knowledge”).  Chochmah is sometimes likened to a flash of lightning, which, for one stroboscopic moment, illuminates the darkness, showing us in an instant all the features of the landscape.  We might not remember all the details, but the overall picture is blindingly clear.  Binah is the quality that sifts through the data that Chochmah has brought to light, systematizing and organizing it into a coherent picture that can be applied and used for individual betterment.  Finally, Da’at, is a kind of synthesis of the previous two, a state of illumination that is steadied and grounded by the order created by Binah.

I suspect that if we reflect back on our own experiences that we will find that we’ve experienced this threefold process in our own lives.  I actually experience it, albeit on a much attenuated level, every week when I write one of these little pieces.  After reviewing the parashah and any commentaries (like Rav Kook’s works), a thought will bubble up inside that contains, in seed form, the whole thrust of the essay.  I must say, it’s hardly like a blaze of lightning across the sky, but it is  very distinct, if subtle.  From that point I bring in other experiences I’ve had, or read about, and other commentaries that might be relevant to the point I’m trying to make, and begin to flesh out the structure of the essay.  Finally, I sit and write, and the original thought takes a final form in words that can be conveyed to another person.

If this sounds quite mundane, that is exactly my point.  While Rav Kook was describing the experience of prophecy, which none of us, presumably, has experienced (prophecy ceased shortly after the building of the Second Temple), the same description can also be applied to more mundane levels of thinking and perception.  Why should this be the case?  And why should the process of thinking and experiencing be parallel to the process of making offerings in the Temple?

I think the answer to this is that the paradigm given by the sefirot represents a very deep structure of creation, one that manifests itself on all levels of creation, like a fractal pattern that is self-similar on all scales of analysis.  This paradigm apparently manifests itself in all levels of thought (i.e. the subjective world) as well as in action (the objective world).  This bespeaks a very deep connection between subjective and objective sides of life.  When we stop to think about it, our senses and our organs of action connect the subjective and the objective worlds, so the fact that they are connected is not so surprising.  The fact that they appear to have parallel structures, however, indicates that the two sides of life actually have a common source, which of course our tradition tells us is Gd.

The Kabbalists tell us that when Gd went to create, he first “contracted” himself, then he radiated his own effulgence into the “space” left vacant by the contraction.  That light was supposed to fill the “vessels,” or structures of creation, but they were incapable of withstanding the “pressure” of the effulgence and “broke.”  It is our job as human beings to “repair” the vessels so that they can once again hold the light.  It seems to me that the essence of this “repair” is to perform thought or action that is aligned with the subtle structure of creation, as we have been discussing.  In the realm of action, we have the offerings in the Temple, as Rav Kook describes.  In the absence of the Temple offerings, reciting and studying the passages describing the offerings substitutes for the actual offerings (the bulk of the morning preliminary service is such a recitation) and has almost the same effect, as it attunes our minds to the steps that were actually taken in the Temple.  On the level of thought, the opening blessing of the Shemoneh Esrei has a structure similar to the upper three sephirot, and the Shemoneh Esrei as a whole does as well, as we discussed some time ago when we spoke of the Shemoneh Esrei in these essays.

When Gd gave us the Torah, he gave us a vehicle with which we can grasp the most fundamental values of life – the infinite, transcendental value at the basis of life, and the fine mechanics by which the transcendent manifests itself.  He commanded us to live our lives according to Torah in order that we know the bliss inherent in such knowledge.  What are we waiting for???