Sunday, March 17, 2013

Humility and Hametz (portion Tzav)

Much has been written about the humility of the newly-appointed Pope Francis.  Given the numerous challenges facing the Vatican, a pope who prefers to take the bus to work, cook his own meals, and personally pay his hotel bills is, from my outsider’s perspective, a refreshing change.  This sort of modesty also calls to mind a message at the center of our weekly Torah portion, Tzav.

Continuing a theme from last week’s portion, Tzav is mostly dedicated to the catalogue of sacrifices offered by Aaron and his sons, the first of the priestly line of kohanim.  Like the pope and other contemporary Catholic clerics, the kohanim wore sacred vestments that symbolized the prestige of their office.  They—and they alone—were appointed to offer the Israelites’ sacrifices and thereby mediate between the people and God.

And yet. . . for all of their priestly power, the kohanim were required to do their share of menial labor.  As Leviticus 6:3 teaches: “The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar, and place them beside the altar.”  In other words, as the Hasidic Rabbi Simchah Bunim noted: “The first act of the priest, every morning, is to put on ordinary clothes and remove the ashes of the previous night’s sacrifice.  This ensures that he never forgets his link to the ordinary people who spend their days in mundane pursuits.”

Humility is an essential Jewish virtue.  Contrary to some common misunderstandings, humility does not mean humiliation or self-degradation.  Instead, it demands that we take up our proper amount of space in the world—neither too much, nor too little.  We should never shy away from using our God-given gifts to do good.  But we must guard against arrogance, which belittles both our fellow men and women and the Holy One.  As Rabbi Lawrence Kushner teaches, where the ego is too bloated, there is no room for either God or community.

This is the season to examine our egos.  In addition to the wisdom of portion Tzav, we also cleanse our houses of hametz in preparation for Pesach.  At a literal level, hametz is leavened foods containing wheat, barley, spelt, rye, and oats.  But the Rabbis also spoke of hametz metaphorically, as puffed up pride and conceit.  As we clean our kitchens, we are also supposed to examine and improve ourselves.

So. . . enjoy your seder.  May it be a wonderful celebration of liberation.  But don’t forget that there is also holiness in doing the dishes afterwards, and reflecting on that experience.

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