When I was in rabbinical school, the morning of erev Rosh Hashanah of my second year, my car had a mechanical failure and it rolled off a cliff. Those of you who read my blog probably know this story already, and so I won’t repeat it – and in any case, it’s a Rosh Hashanah story, not a shabbat haGadol story. But what happened afterward, that is a shabbat haGadol story.
I walked away from that accident, and right after the chagim, returned to class to the wonder of my classmates, who had all seen my car, which was, off course, totaled. My classmates and professors were all a little ginger with me. Yet, obviously, I was physically unhurt, and so, after a few tedious rounds of “did you feel like God did a miracle for you?” (The answer, for the record is, “no,” which is probably yet another dvar for another day) most of us went back to normal. But after a few months, when everyone but me had forgotten about it, I felt compelled to go see one of my teachers.
This teacher is a bit eccentric, even by fairly generous standards of eccentricity. Yet, something about him let me know that there was something deeper to him than he wanted to let on generally. So I went to him one day after class, and told him that I had been having what were sort of wide awake dreams, or maybe something akin to a sense of déjà vu – I didn’t know what to call it, exactly: I would have moments when I was sitting in class, or was about to fall asleep at night, or I was shopping at the grocery, when I was convinced that I had not actually walked away from the car accident. That in fact, perhaps I was still falling at that very moment, and in precursor to my death, I was living out a whole life in my mind. Or that I had already died, and didn’t yet know it –I was a sort of ghost, still walking.
I didn’t really know how to explain it – perhaps I still don’t. After all, nothing really bad had happened to me in that accident. I had walked away from it – had I not? My rav asked me about the experience – he was surprised to hear that in fact, I hadn’t passed out while falling, but was conscious the whole way down, through all the rolling.
As you may guess, his answer did nothing to stop these moments of unreality. They continued for months afterward – in fact, I occasionally still have them, although not nearly as often as I used to.
You may by now be wondering what all this has to do with the portion. This week, we read the portion of tzav, which is about korbanot – sacrifices.
Most of us look at anything that has to do with sacrifices, and our eyes just glaze right over. A whole portion of nothing but this -well, it doesn’t bode well for those of us not inflicted with insomnia.
But, what are the sacrifices, really? The word korban, itself, comes from karev- to draw close to. And indeed, the purpose of korbanot are to help us draw close to God.
Why aren’t we close to God? What is it that poisons the soul? What is it that makes us too tired to live Jewishly, to pray with joy, to make our connections to one another and to Our Great Beloved Friend? What could possibly make us feel that it isn’t worth the bother?
The rabbis tell us that it is nothing but hirhurim – the murmurings of the heart. What are the murmurings of the heart? Turning aside from God? Idolatry? Some rabbis looked at them as an outside force – something that enters us to distance us from God.
I want to suggest that hirhurim aren’t really those things at all. Hirhurim, murmurings, are those things which fill up our minds with noise and static, and so distance us from ourselves, God and the world. This is why the rabbis viewed that as an embodiment of the evil inclination. They are those things that make us say, “what’s the difference?” or, “I’m busy right now – maybe later,” about talking to our children, God or our friends and neighbors; about doing mitzvot, making an attempt to ameliorate a large problem – like poverty, or Darfur. They can be caused by all kinds of things – big incidents, like an accident or trauma, or small details building up upon us so that we finally are buried under them, like housework, or our jobs and errands. They prevent us from seeing one another, ourselves, and God for all the dust they stir up, and the cobwebs they lay down over our vision.
The Chasidic rabbi Rabbi Shalom Noach, the Slonimer Rebbe, commented in Netivot Shalom that
The olah came to atone for the murmurs of the heart. And behold, it says … there’s a story that one person was in a great forest and wanted to cut down all the trees in order to build there a city, and he began to cut one tree down, until he saw that his days would end and still he would not have finished, since the numbers were beyond counting. What did he do? He lit a great flame of fire that burned and cut down all the trees at one time. So with a Jew whose bad thoughts wage war [upon him] behold, when this thought is removed, another thought will come to be beneath it and his days will end and the thoughts will not end, and his etzato (a pun on advice and trees) is to light a great flame, a flaming, blazing fire of God, and the holy fire burns and consumes all the ideas of bad thoughts. And this is the inyan (point) of fire of the altar, the fire of holiness, that this is the torah of the olah to atone for murmurings of the heart, by means of holy fire, fire of torah and fire of serving God, that only with the power of the holy fire of the altar that burns and consumes all thoughts is it possible to purify [oneself of] the murmurings of the heart.
In other words, the fire on the altar, is a fire that should light not sacrifices, but us – it is we who should be on fire.
Perhaps I heard a muted gasp about the comment that advocates burning a huge forest to the ground – but really it’s an apt metaphor- let’s say it isn’t a city that we want to build in its place, but a healthy forest: pine bush is a kind of environmental niche which requires fire very regularly in order to survive. Without fire, underbrush and dead wood buils up and prevents young plants from getting enough sun, and new life and growth cannot begin. The entire ecosystem begins to founder; it needs the fire to clean out the trash so that the young fresh life can have room to take seed and root and to grow.
The second verse of our portion reads,
זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָֽעֹלָה
This is the Torah of the ha-olah, the burnt offering. But the midrash reads it
( Vayikra 6:2) This is the Torah of the one who goes up - ha- oleh. Whenever someone raises himself up, his end is to go into the fire (Midrash tehillim 11:5). R. Moshe of Kobrin explains:
“This is the Torah of the burnt offering (Olah) – the way to ascend in Torah study is by remaining ‘on the altar’ – by studying with fervor – with a holy flame.”
This comment on the olah reminded me of a phrase which is used many times in the Talmud – the way that a rabbinical scholar is referred to in the Talmud is as a “tzurba merabbanan” – literally “one who is on fire from the rabbis.” In tractate -Ta'anit (4a), it says, “If a young scholar - tzurba mrabbanan- gets into a rage it is because the Torah inflames him, as it is said [in the Torah in Jeremiah], Is not my word like fire? said the Lord.(Jer. 23:29)”
What is the way to go up? It is to become tzurba merabbanan. To light oneself on fire, every day and not let the fire go out. To clean out our minds by means of passion, by studying – as a kind of meditation that focuses us on the dialogue between Jew and God.
We are used to thinking of scholars as rather dry people, alone in their hidey-holes, poring away at some arcane bit which can’t possibly have any relevance to one’s life. And it’s true that some are – but that’s not the Jewish tradition. The Jewish tradition of scholarship is, for one, not for the elite. It’s for everyone. That’s why the Talmud requires a scholar to live only in a place where there is a teacher for the young. That’s why Jews were one of the first cultures with public education.
To study is shmirat hanefesh – guarding one’s soul. For the soul is not something which need no tending. It is a gift, but a gift of a very special kind, like the pitch pines of Louisiana, which require fire to reseed itself. It must be burnt to the ground, and yet doing so, it never “goes out.” In order to grow, to see the sunshine, one must light a fresh fire, to release new seeds and begin new growth.
The sensation I had of being still stuck in that moment when my car went over a cliff – the feeling that perhaps I remain there, abandoned in the moment for ever - “being dead already and not knowing it” – could have become real hirhurim – murmurings so loud, so distracting that I became a sort of zombie, constantly distracted from the world by that feeling of distance – that false feeling of distance. But I was lucky to have been in the right place to cure that – a place in which study was a regular occurrence, a place in which those murmurings could be turned into yearnings that can be spoken and acted upon – making the chasm into which I was falling, an opportunity to experience flying.
The opening of the Torah portion, in describing the ritual of the olah, tells us that every morning, the priest must dress in special linen clothing and remove the ashes from the fire (Vayikra 6:3), and then reminds us that the fire on the altar must be kept continually burning, and not allowed to go out; thus every morning, the priest also has to put fresh wood on the fire to keep it going (6:5, 6)
The chasidic commentator Sfat Emet says that this fire which is renewed each day is like God’s grace which, says the prayerbook, “God renews each day in God’s goodness (from the first blessing before the shema shacharit : uv’tuvo m’chadesh bchol yom tamid maaseh bereshit). He adds, “The commandment here to remove the ashes hints that as we burn up the waste in our lives we are uplifted each day and then we are given new light. The redemptive process is with us every single day.”
The world offers us all kinds of mysterious things to chant and sing and burn and wave around to cure our hirhurim, but it turns out that there is a way which is simpler by far, and perfectly accessible to our understanding: it is opening a book and studying –just a little bit- every day.
In doing so we burn down the forest of tangled thoughts, and fill up the stuckness with the richness of here I am now, with God and my chevruta. We don’t just light a fire, we become the fire.
When we become the fire that stuckness becomes not clinging to emptiness, but being filled with something that purifies. There is a Sufi saying, “He is burnt who fears the fire, but the one who is fire, how shall he be burnt?”
xposted to Radical Torah