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Parashat Tsav, Shabbat Parah: The wisdom of Ashes in wartime

This week, with Parashat Tsav, we are delving deeper into “offerings”, Korbanot.

 How can these strange rituals be relevant today?

In fact, in these times of war, they may speak to us more than ever.

From the root קרב (Karov): “close”, Korbanot point to their function: bringing ourselves closer to the divine, through bringing edible foods "close" to the Altar.

Because we live in an embodied reality, intentions need to be translated into actions. So it goes in any of our relationships, and so it goes in our relationship with God.

At the time of the Temple, Bnei Israel brought animals, fruit, flour and oil.

Since the destruction of the Temple, we bring our hearts.

This is called “Avodah She b’lev” (Service of the Heart).

And in prayer just as in rituals, we speak not just to God, but also to ourselves:

we tell a story about who we are, where we are at, and where we want to be.

And ultimately, where we want to be, is close to the Oneness of Life.

Today the story we are telling in particularly dark.

A cloud of death, together with the silent shout of captives, is hanging around us.

So this year perhaps more than ever, it feels timely to remember another ritual.

This one too, just like in the opening of Parashat Tsav, is about ashes. 

This week is shabbat Parah, the third of the four special shabbatot before Pessach.

 In it we commemorate the ritual of the Red Heifer or Parah Adumah, a sacrificial ritual by which the ashes of a burnt animal would be at the center of a purification ritual for someone who came to contact with death.

In Judaism, the concepts of purity and impurity (taharah and tum’ah) have nothing to do with cleanliness.

They speak about life and death.

Everything we do that brings us closer to life, is pure.

Every time that we come to contact with death, we are impure.

In a way, today, Jews in Israel -and perhaps in the Diaspora too, we are all impure. 

There has been too much death around. There is still too much death threat.

This is when the wisdom of Ashes comes to teach us something:

Sometimes the symptom is the remedy.

Ashes represent death: they are the trace of something alive that was consumed. Jews after 1945 know this all too well.

Often we tend to turn away from what hurts. We don’t want to confront it.

We’d rather ignore it.

But what if confronting, embracing, was the remedy?

There is a famous popular saying that says, the only way beyond a storm, is through.

And, whether we like it or not, it is true, and this is where we are.

Sure, I’d rather, a million times, ignore all the death hanging all around, and pretend nothing is happening. But ignoring it won’t make it disappear.

So if we turn towards the Ashes, what can it tell us about healing?

The Ashes, for the Hasidic Master Mei Ha Shiloach, teaches of “irah"- awe, deep reverence, “fear of heaven”: it reminds us how powerful Fire is.

What would happen if suddenly, all humans on the Planet remembered “irah”:

if suddenly all of us would show deep reverence for the Source of Life that runs through all of us?

Then there simply wouldn’t be wars.

But including when forced into war -as Israel has been on October 7th, as still is, with Hamas still refusing to release the hostages, one can still wage war from a place of Irah, of deep respect for the Source of Life.

And whatever the world says about it, this is what the Israeli army-including with its own downfalls, is doing.

And they are doing so in an impossible war, in which where they are caught up in a double-bind by an enemy who fights without uniform and hides among civilians, in order to cause as much confusion and civilian casualty as as possible, as part of a very successful communication strategy with Western media.

I am sharing this today for the first time because this is part of the reality right now. And just as we are invited to face our ashes, I am turn towards it today.

Yes, this may be a time for Irah for all of us.

Irah is a call to deep respect, and to humility. Not thinking we know everything. And certainly not judging others from the comfort of our couches.

And the beauty of it, is that it doesn't stop there.

For the Mei HaShiloach, Irah is just the beginning. If embraced in truth, it inevitably leads us somewhere else:

If we humans were just a little bit more humble, perhaps our hearts would open a little more too.

And then perhaps, yes perhaps, instead of burning each other up, we would burn our egos on the Altar of the Source of Life.

And then perhaps our souls would be purified- “clarified” in the words of the Ishbitzer Rebbe. And then, perhaps we could all enjoy the blessing of being closer.

This is my invitation to you, and my prayer for all of us.

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