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Holy Vessels

Tzav (Leviticus 6-8 )

by Rabbi Ari Kahn

Parashat Tzav includes very detailed instructions for the sacrificial rites of various types of offerings (korbanot). At a certain point in the text, as the intricacies of the sin offering are enumerated, the text veers slightly off center, and makes some comments regarding "housekeeping:"

Any clay pot in which [the sin offering] is cooked must be broken. However, if [the offering] is cooked in a copper pot, [the pot] may be purged and then rinsed with water. (Vayikra 6:21)

The sages explain that this law is concerned with the transfer of holiness from the offering itself to the vessel in which it is prepared. Like almost all offerings (with the exception of the olah, the burnt offering), the sin offering is eaten; unlike other offerings, the sin offering is enjoyed by the priests who serve in the Temple (the kohanim), but not by the person who offers the sacrifice as a means of atoning for a sin. There are other important limitations on the consumption of this sin offering, most notably its "expiration date:" Sin offerings may be consumed only within a limited period of time. Clearly, then, the taste of the offering is part and parcel of its holiness, and any residue must be expelled from the utensil before the time limit expires. Earthenware, which is a porous material, absorbs tastes and can never be completely purged of residue; therefore, earthenware utensils used for preparation of the sin offering must be destroyed after use. Metal vessels, on the other hand, are not absorbent and may be completely purged of residual flavor - and holiness.

In his commentary Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Luntschitz (1550-1619) offers a homiletic reading of this passage, drawing spiritual instruction for our own experience of sin and atonement. The residual taste in the utensil is analogous to the residual stain that sin leaves on our hearts. Sometimes, to remove the stain, a thorough wash is sufficient; other times, complete immersion is required. In some instances, when the stain of sin is so profound that it has been absorbed into our very being, becoming a part of who we are, we must break our hearts in order to purge the sin.

Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik made a similar observation in a shiur I attended: The Talmud recounts the execution of Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion, and the precise method of torture to which he was subjected. The Romans wrapped him in a Torah scroll and set it aflame - but that was not sufficiently cruel for them. To prolong the agony, his chest was swathed in damp wool to make his death slower and more painful:

... they found Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion sitting and occupying himself with the Torah, publicly gathering assemblies [of students], with a Torah scroll in his lap. [The Romans] took hold of him, wrapped him in a Torah scroll, placed bundles of branches round him and set them on fire. They then brought tufts of wool, which they had soaked in water, and placed them over his heart, so that he should not expire quickly. His daughter exclaimed, 'Father, must I see you like this!' He replied, 'If it were I alone being burned, then it would have been difficult for me; but now that l am burning together with a Torah scroll, He who will take vengeance for the insult of the Torah will also take retribution for what they have done to me.' His disciples called out, 'Rabbi, what do you see?' He answered them, 'The parchment is being burnt but the letters are soaring up [to Heaven].' 'Open your mouth so that the fire will enter [and your suffering will be shortened].' He replied, 'Let Him who gave me my soul take it away; no one is permitted to injure himself.' The Executioner then said to him, 'Rabbi, if I raise the flame and take away the tufts of wool from over your heart, will you see to it that I enter into the World to Come?' 'Yes,' he replied. 'Then swear to me'. He swore to him. He thereupon raised the flame and removed the tufts of wool from over his heart, and his soul departed speedily. The Executioner then leaped and threw himself into the fire, and a bat kol (heavenly voice) exclaimed: Rabbi Chanina ben Teradion and the Executioner have been assigned to the World to Come. When Rabbi (Yehudah Hanasi) heard it, he wept and said: 'One man may acquire eternal life in a single hour, another after many years.' (Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 18a)

The executioner had a sudden epiphany that seems to have been at odds with the entire trajectory of his life up to that point. This man was a seasoned, veteran killer; he should have been impervious to the suffering of one more Jewish martyr - but something dramatic happened. The killer became compassionate. Rather than focusing on his professional skills as a cruel assassin, he became concerned with euthanasia, with easing the suffering of his victim, and his spiritual fate was completely altered as a result.

Under normal circumstances, converts to Judaism must immerse in a mikvah, a ritual bath, symbolizing their spiritual rebirth. In a very real sense, we might say that this executioner underwent a spiritual conversion, but rather than immersing in cleansing waters, he was immersed in flames. Apparently, his sin was so profound that a thorough wash was insufficient to cleanse his soul; immersion in water was also not enough. The stain of sin had become his entire personality, his entire life, Rabbi Soloveitchik taught. This man had so much Jewish blood on his hands, only fire could expunge the evil. Once the vessel that held his newly-repentant soul was destroyed, the stain of sin purged, he was welcomed into the World to Come.

In the days leading up to Pesach, we go to great lengths to insure that our utensils are washed, purged, and kosher for Pesach. Perhaps we should take some time to consider our souls as well, and to cleanse ourselves in preparation for the holiday that sets us free.

© Rabbi Ari Kahn 2018

For more essays and lectures on Parashat Tzav:

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