Making Meaning of the Ashes in Our Lives
“This is the Torah of the sacrifice… let the priest where his cloth clothes…and lift the ashes that the fire creates… and place them near the altar.” (Leviticus 6:2-3).
When we think of sacrifices and gifts to others, we think of important things: objects of beauty and value, gestures that sacrifice our time and money but show our love and concern for others. The world would not work without these sacrifices, and we could not connect with others and with God without making these sacrifices. If not for giving up what we do, what would love really mean? What would commitment really mean if we never made a significant effort to show it?
The whole book of Leviticus is about showing such effort, and we are off to a running start from last week, where we saw so many different kinds of giving to God, to the priests and even to those around us: animals, fowl, pastries and breads. Rich people’s gifts and poor people’s gifts – and middle class gifts. But sacrifice and giving is not always about big things, big efforts and big accomplishments for the world. This weeks Parsha starts off by reminding us that there is another kind of gift we can make to those around us, to our community and people and to God as well: admitting our failures and weaknesses, taking down our defenses and being honest with those around us. That is the sacrifice of the ashes.
The ashes from the altar represent things in life that didn’t work out the way we planned them. They represent the nasty things we did that we wish we would never do. Sometimes no one sees these burnt pieces of our lives except ourselves. But every day the priest shovels the ashes from the altar, from the organs that have been sizzling on the fire all night, and acknowledges that these ashes exist and that they are holy. Ashes are things we would rather not smell, rather not look at – perhaps pretend that they never existed. But they are real. They remind us of how we took the wrong path, how we hurt people by our actions – people were burned by our fire. As important as it is for us to be on fire and to be passionate and excited about what we do for our world and for all those around us, to be inspired by our own sacrifices and efforts, it is just as important to realize the mistakes we make and the people who may be burnt by those mistakes.
Ashes do not disappear just because we forget about them! But, on the other hand, if we take notice of them, they can be a way of getting us closer to God and enable us to rebuild relationships. Ashes should not be left on the altar, as if they weren’t there, but neither can they be tosses away out of sight and out of mind. Rather, at least some need to be elevated, sanctified, allowed into our lives so that we can deal with them. The great sacrifice of the ashes is accomplished by taking responsibility and cognizance of these ashes. They are not clean and they are don’t fit in well with our self-image or our plans of moving forward. In fact, the priest would eventually have to change his nice clothes in order to get the full sweeping job done and remove all the ashes. But to start out, he wore simple but elegant clothes, touching his body directly – no easy interruptions or convenient interference – and placed these ashes right on the side of the altar. They were a reminder that they are part of the process of connecting and giving just as much as all the bulls, lambs and loaves that were eaten with gusto by so many.
Our lives are filled with fire and action, with moving forward and upward and getting things sizzling and happening. But our Parsha asks us not to forget about looking at the consequences of what we do, not to be so stiff necked that we can’t look from side to side to see the collateral damage of sometimes totally necessary actions. Every day the priest would put a pile of ashes next to the altar so every priest walking up to offer the exciting sacrifice of every man or women – Jewish or Gentile – would see those ashes and would think: “While I am moving forward, I realize that there will be ashes. I need to think about those ashes, to sanctify them, to make them, too, an integral part of my life and who I am and who I want to be.”
May we all find the ashes littered around us, collect them, and place them lovingly close by to us so that we never forget and we always think of them as we move ahead with the great sacrifices and accomplishments in our lives.