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Ashes to Ashes; Dust to Dust

Tzav (Leviticus 6-8 )

by Rabbi Noson Weisz

This week's Torah portion begins by presenting us with two rather peculiar commandments.

The first commandment instructs the Kohanim to clear the ashes that are the residue of the burnt offerings from the altar, to place part of these ashes next to the altar and transport the remainder to a designated place outside the camp; they must do this in their priestly vestments, although they are allowed to wear vestments that have seen better days.

There is nothing peculiar about clearing away ashes per se; the peculiarity is in the Mitzvah; there is little reason to issue a commandment to mandate an activity that would have to be carried out in any case. Besides, the Kohanim did their utmost to keep the Temple meticulously clean. The Talmud (Pesachim, 64a) relates how they insisted on cleaning the Temple on the Sabbath even in the face of rabbinic disapproval. What need is there to turn such a humdrum activity as cleaning up into a Mitzvah, especially as it would have been done in any case?

The second commandment instructs the Kohanim to keep a fire burning on the altar perpetually.


This is the comment of the Sefer HaChinuch, [one of the basic early works on Jewish thought that records all the 613 commandments of the Torah and offers reasons for their issuance, authored by Rabbi Pinchas HaLevi of Barcelona, a well known medieval thinker and teacher] concerning this commandment: he does a thorough job of discussing all the issues and we shall quote him at some length.

(Commandment 132) To light a fire on the altar daily and to keep it burning constantly. In their discussion of this Mitzvah our Sages of blessed memory said: "Although fire descended from heaven, there is a Mitzvah to bring common [earthly] fire in addition in any case."

Now, let this not be a difficulty for you, to ask, 'what sort of commandment is this? Surely they would have had to maintain a fire in any case, for the offerings which they were required to sacrifice could not be brought [burnt on the altar as the Mitzvah commands] without fire?' For this Mitzvah involves maintaining a separate fire, apart from the fire needed to burn the sacrificial offerings....

[But this raises a totally different problem. What is the need for such a fire altogether? What can the purpose of a commandment to simply keep a fire burning on the altar possibly have?] Regarding the purpose of the commandment: It is a matter well known to us and to every man of wisdom that even when God performs major miracles to benefit human beings in His great goodness, He always works them in a hidden way, and they seem to happen in natural ways or in ways close to the natural order. For even about the miracle of the division of the Red Sea, which was obviously a miracle, it is written, "The Lord drove the sea back by a strong east wind all the night, and made the sea dry land, and the waters were divided." (Exodus 14:21) Those with intelligence will understand that the need for this concealment is on account of the exalted state of God and the lowly state of the recipient.

Rabbi HaLevi wants to explain that miracles can only be seen if they can be absorbed through the five ordinary senses. We can only experience miracles if they are first packaged in natural phenomena. We may recognize that the source of such events is supernatural but our direct experience of them is always through nature. He continues:

For this reason He commanded us to burn fire on the altar, even though flame would descend there from heaven in any case in order to conceal the miracle. Evidently the fire that came down could not be perceived directly in its descent for the reason we have stated....

Rabbi HaLevi is referring to the heavenly fire described in the Talmud (Yuma 21b). This fire took the shape of a lion lying on the altar during the first Temple era, while in the second Temple era it assumed the shape of a reclining dog. The commandment to keep our own earthly fire lit was intended to render this holy fire visible to the human observer by packaging it in a wrapping that is detectable to our senses. Returning to the text:

It remains necessary for us to explain the significance of the Mitzvah to kindle the fire on the altar apart from the fire needed there for the offerings. [We know] that man is blessed according to the activities that he engages in to satisfy the will of his Creator... [Therefore] the purpose of the Mitzvah that imposes the duty to occupy oneself with God's fire every day is to arrange for man to be blessed in the aspect of fire in him.

And what is this fire [in man]? It is the driving force of nature in man. One of the four elements in man is fire, and it is the chief one of the four, since it is the element that energizes man and enables him to move and function. Therefore the blessing of God is most needed in this element. The aim of a blessing is wholeness, assuring that there is nothing missing and nothing superfluous. So the element of fire in man has need of this blessing - that there should be in man the amount of it that he needs, not less for his strength will be weakened, and not more for then he will be burnt by it... The sons of Aaron added fire without being commanded (Leviticus 10:1), hence fire was added within them, and they were burnt. For according to a person's activity will his punishment come, or the blessing of God will rest upon him.

At first glance, the two reasons offered by Rabbi HaLevi appear to be in direct conflict. On the one hand, we need the fire to reveal the holy fire of God that rests constantly on the Altar. This reason for lighting the fire appears to serve God's purpose, not man's. But the second reason offered explains that the human fire is lit so that God can 'perfect' the fire within man through the medium of the fire on the altar. This fire clearly burns for man's sake, not God's.

If we study the reasons at greater depth we discover that they are not in conflict after all.


According to Jewish tradition, the Greek idea that all phenomena in the universe are a composite of the four basic elements, fire, air, earth and water mixed in varying proportions has its origins in Judaism. The basic idea of the four elements is spiritual. They are really the emanations of the four letters of God's holy name YHVH. The elements as we encounter them in the physical universe are the very outermost expressions of these spiritual emanations; the level of physicality is always the very surface layer of reality that covers the metaphysical qualities that lie concealed underneath.

In the work Nefesh Hachaim, Rabbi Yizchok of Volozhin [see long footnote at the beginning of the work] explains the true significance of these four elements using their physical manifestation as a metaphor to describe their essence. As we encounter it in the common world of everyday experience, fire always goes up toward the heavens. It never burns in a downward direction. Fire as we are familiar with it also has the capacity to transform all physical objects to smoke, an almost totally non-physical substance. Whatever catches fire goes up in smoke. Symbolically, the element fire represents the drive toward spirituality - a drive to return to the Creator and be consumed by a spiritual union with Him.

At the opposite extreme of the four elements is the earth, which never falls up, but always descends to the bottom of any solution. Left to itself, earth is always inert. Symbolically, fire and earth represent two extremes - burning passion for spirituality versus total apathy towards any spiritual movement. Fire and earth never directly combine. Except for the very surface layer of topsoil, earth is non-flammable.

Sandwiched between these extreme levels of fire and earth are the elements air and water. Fire cannot combine with water directly, but fire and wind can easily combine. Wind and water also combine quite handily and as the fire heats the wind, the wind passes the effects of the fore on to the water. The water then falls to earth and blends with thsoil to bring it the nutrients of life. The middle elements of air and water thus unite the extremes of fire and earth into a single system. If we regard creation as a single unified system it is easy to grasp why it must be built out of four elements. You must go through four steps to transform the spiritual into the physical and turn the universe into a single integrated system.

Following the metaphor we can also perceive that it is in earth, the inert element, that the three active elements express themselves. It is the earth that serves as the womb from which all life emerges. The air and water allow the earth to combine with and express the fire and energy of life in various forms. It is the only substance that can tolerate the combination of all four elements. Although inert in itself, earth is the universe's unifying force.


These four elements, which are present in the physical world in their familiar forms, have their appropriate counterparts on all the levels of creation. Each level of creation is bridged by these four elements expressed in their appropriate form all the way up to and including the four letters that comprise God's Holy Name, YHVH, the source of all the levels of being.

Not surprisingly the combination of these four elements find their expression in man as well. The body of man represents the earth, as we learn from the Torah:

"... and YHVH Elohim formed the man of dust from the earth." (Genesis 2:7)

Like the earth, man's body is the unifying element in which his thoughts, emotions and actions - which correspond to the fire, air and water - become revealed to the outside world and express themselves.

But the symbolic representation of the basic elements in man has deeper ramifications. Each level within man has its own inert and active ingredients.

For example, within the body, which in its entirety serves as the symbolic representation of 'earth' in the elements, there are organs that represent each of the other elements. R'Chaim explains that these representative organs are the brain, the heart and the liver. The brain is the organ in man that is capable of serving as the receiver that is sensitive to the messages transmitted by his soul. The soul itself is pure fire, the spiritual aspect of man that ascends ever upward to grasp the Infinite; the brain that transmits the messages of the soul onward in the form of thoughts is the fire within the earth.

The thoughts in the brain that carry the messages of the soul are akin to the element of air that mixes with fire. These thoughts imprint themselves on the soil of the brain in the form of powerful decisions and resolutions. The ability to form decisions and resolutions out of thoughts is the water element that mixes with the air and imprints the soul-generated thoughts into the soil of the brain. 'The flowering' of the soil of the mind can be detected in the degree of its focus on the world of the spirit. The concentration of attention is the outward indicator of the power of the fire in the soul.

The next level is the heart. Because the heart is the seat of the life force, the expression of the basic elements is more powerful here. The fire takes the form of emotions; the love and the fear of God, emotions that can produce a powerful feeling of uplift in the person who experiences them. The earth of the heart is the mouth, in which the fire of man's emotions is expressed through his power of speech. A living being is a speaking spirit (according to Targum, the translation of Onkelos, for Genesis 1:7), combining the breath (air) and moisture (water) of his lungs in the voice that issues from his mouth (earth).

Still lower is the liver, the organ that is in charge of controlling the quality of the blood in the body, and therefore the central focus all the active organs. Here the fire in the soul and the heart express themselves as the sheer joy of being alive that is felt while engaged in the performance of God's commandments, the wind as the intensity and enthusiasm with which the actions associates with the performance of the Mitzvoth are carried out, the water as the attraction and desire toward spirituality or repulsion and disgust from pure physicality.


This is the description of how the holy fire in his soul can permeate the entire being of man, but it is only half the picture of a human being.

An unholy fire burns in man as well, a fire that he is sent to earth to extinguish. This fire does not originate in his soul. The fire in the soul gives rise to the burning desire to reach upward towards the Infinite, and this fire cannot drive man towards evil or away from God. The unholy fire in man originates in his own heart. It is the fire of haughtiness or self-centeredness that encourages man to regard himself as the highest point in the universe. When he allows himself to be consumed by this fire, man's reach upwards ends in man himself and expresses itself as the satisfaction of his own desires.

This unholy fire can imprint itself on the brain in the same way as the holy fire of the soul and form thoughts and resolutions in the brain through the identical process described above. But the focus that results is the satisfaction of the thirst generated by the fire of haughtiness through the water of desires and the air of improper speech, down to the earth of forbidden actions.

If we take the first letters of the Hebrew words for brain (moach), heart (lev), and liver (koved), we spell out the word melech, which means "king."

When the fire of his soul guides man's actions he is a regal creature, full of power and majesty, and even in his physical presence he can be compared to a lion, the king of beasts. When the fire in his heart dominates his life, he is compared to a kelev, a dog. This Hebrew word spells the word for king backwards except that the letter mem, which stands for the brain is missing entirely and is replaced by the letter bet, which simply stands for two. When man burns with the heat of his own earthly fire, he is spiritually reversed; he starts from his liver instead of his head, never gets higher than his heart and uses his brain as his heart number two, a machine to work out the best way to satisfy his desires.

In the first Temple era, the holy fire that descended from heaven lay on the altar in the shape of a lion. The Shechina, the presence of God, was manifest in the first Temple; man was able to fully experience the holy fire of his soul and dedicate the fire in his own heart to the expression of the holy fire of God that burned on the altar.

In the second Temple, the Shechina was not manifest. The fire of the soul burned less brightly and could never attain its strongest expression. The most intense output of the soul could barely supply the heavenly input needed to subdue the unholy fire in man's heart, the fire that turns him into a kelev, a dog; the holy fire on the altar also adopted this shape.


We can now return to the second commandment relating to the gathering of the ashes we mentioned at the outset.

When fire consumes it leaves a residue of ash. If man burns his life force in fueling the fire that burns in his soul and pulls him to unite with the Infinite, he transforms the dust of earth from which he was formed into ashes. Aside from the residue of ash left by the conflagration, the entire life force of the servant of God has 'gone up in the smoke' of his Divine service and is unified with God. The haughtiness in his heart, the unholy fire of his ego, have been totally consumed by the fire of his soul. He is entitled to describe himself as consisting entirely of dust and ashes, as Abraham did: he can demonstrate that the 'dust' from which he was made is to be found entirely in the ashes of its residue:

Abraham responded and said, "Behold, now, I desired to speak to my Lord although I am but dust and ashes." (Genesis 18:27)

But as long as man remains engaged in the battle between his two fires and his life is a mixture of the expression of the fire in his soul and the flame of his ego, the residue of ash formed by the burning of the life fois a mixture; both of the fires that burn in him produced it. Some of the ashes are the products of the fire in his soul, but the remainder was produced by the energy that was burnt fueling the fire of haughtiness that burns in man's heart.

The commandment to clear away the ashes therefore consists of two parts:

  1. A part of the ashes are placed next to the altar, where they were miraculously swallowed into the floor of the Temple (Talmud, Yuma 21a) and became part of the sanctified soil of the Temple itself. When man consumes his body in feeding the fire of his soul even the residue becomes holy. The dust of which he is made becomes a part of the Temple soil and the presence of God is expressed in it.
  2. The remainder of the ashes is transported to a place outside the camp. These ashes are the residues of the fire of haughtiness in man's heart and cannot remain in holy surroundings. But even these ashes deserve special treatment; they were also sacrificed on God's altar. The priest must don his holy vestments when he handles them. They are cleared away, but treated with respect.

There is no contradiction in the two reasons presented by Rabbi HaLevi in the Sefer HaChinuch for the lighting of the fire on the Altar. The fire that burns in our souls is fire sent down to us by God. Our task is to absorb it into our lives as human Fire. The holy fire can only become visible in our world when we use the energy of our life force to carry out God's commandments in our everyday lives.

Our aim must always be to engage in God's service so that He can make the fire within us spread and grow, but in a way that is perfect. Too much zeal will consume us instead of making us glow brightly, but too little will leave us dark and cold. The residue of ash we leave behind tells the story of what we have done with the fire and energy of life.

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