When is “taking out the ash” as simple as clearing up the remains of a fire? As often, perhaps, as a cigar is just a cigar. And when — in musing on “musings,” or sins of the heart — does “Mah nishtanah?” simply mean “What’s changed?”
Musings: or Sins of the Heart
This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it. The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breaches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. — Leviticus/Vayikra 6:2-4
Scholars have long drawn lessons of derekh eretz [manners/ethics] from this passage: Dress appropriately to an occasion, including Shabbat, as a sign of respect, e.g.; change dirty clothes before serving food, (see Something to Notice). Those preparing for Passover often seize on the topic of “housekeeping” as a sacred task, linking it with the seasonal search for chametz. But less straightforward lessons have also been linked with taking out the ash.
The olah — burnt offering, totally consumed by fire — is not obviously linked with any sin. However, R. Simeon bar Yochai associated the olah with sinful thoughts (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3). Nachmanides (Ramban) saw inner or secret thoughts — hirhurim ha-lev [literally: speculations of the heart] — as a kind of first step toward active sinning. See A Torah Commentary for Our Times* for a discussion of this.
The passage above’s focus on a sacrifice which burned all night caused some teachers to link it particularly with inappropriate sexual passions, which might also “burn all night.” (Can’t find an English citation, but some cite the Hebrew Torah Shelemah Menahem Kasher.)
Avivah Zornberg, in her book The Murmuring Deep,* links the Akedah — which was to be a burnt sacrifice — with Abraham’s hirhurim, his “qualms.” (See also “Look Behind You.”)
Considering the link between the olah and hirhurim is one path to follow. Here’s another…
Musings: Or Speculations on Seder Night
While “hirhurim” seem to have particularly dark overtones in rabbinic and later literature on the olah, “hirhurim” in modern Hebrew are, as I understand it, more simply “thoughts” or “speculations.”
And “hihurei leil ha-seder” — “musings on the seder night” — form this poem, a section of the much longer piece called “Gods Change, Prayers are Here to Stay,” in Yehuda Amichai‘s Open Closed Open. This particular passage does not appear in the English translation.
While I doubt that Amichai had in mind any connection between seder night musings and the rabbinical idea of “sins of the heart” — or, in Zornberg’s formulation, “qualms” — they are not entirely unrelated, I think.
From from Chagim.org.il
קטע מתוך: פתוח סגור פתוח / יהודה עמיחי
הרהורי ליל הסדר, מה נשתנה, שאלנו
מה נשתנה הלילה הזה מכל הלילות.
ורובנו גדלנו ולא נשאל עוד וַאֲחָדים
ממשיכי לשאול במשך כל חייהם, כמו ששואלים
מה שלומך או, מה השעה וממשיכים ללכת
בלי לשמוע תשובה. מה נשתנה כל לילה,
כמו שעון מעורר שתקתוקו מרגיע ומרדים
מה נשתנה, הכל ישתנה. השינוי הוא האלוהים.
הרהורי ליל הסדר. כנגד ארבעה בנים דיברה
תורה, אחד חכם, אחד רשע, אחד תם, ואחד
שלא יודע לשאול. אבל לא מדובר שָם
על אחד טוב ולא על אחד אוהב.
וזו שאלה שאין לה תשובה ואם תהיה לה תשובה
לא ארצה לדעת. אני שעברתי את כל הבנים
בצירופי שונים, חייתי את חיי, הירח האיר
עלי ללא צורך והשמש הלכה לה וחגי פסח
עברו בלי תשובה. מה נשתנה. השינוי
הוא האלוהים, המוות נְבִיאו.
* Please see Source Materials for full citations and additional information on Torah references. Full citations for English and Hebrew poetry volumes are available on the Amichai page.
The “Opening the Book” series was originally presented in cooperation with the independent, cross-community Jewish Study Center and with Kol Isha, an open group that for many years pursued spirituality from a woman’s perspective at Temple Micah (Reform). “A Song Every Day” is an independent blog, however, and all views, mistakes, etc. are the author’s.
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