The Message of the Burnt Offering
Summarized by Shaul Barth
Translated by Kaeren Fish
God spoke to Moshe, saying: Command Aharon and his sons, saying, This is the teaching of the burnt offering: it is the burnt offering which shall burn upon the altar all night until the morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn within it. And the kohen shall wear his linen garment, and shall wear his linen pants upon his flesh, and he shall take up the ashes which the fire shall consume with the burnt offering upon the altar, and place them beside the altar. And he shall remove his garments and put on other garments, and he shall remove the ashes to outside of the camp, to a clean place. And the fire upon the altar shall remain burning on it; it shall not be extinguished. (Vayikra 6:1-6)
At first glance, the opening verses of parashat Tzav seem very strange. Usually, the structure of a parasha discussing some sort of sacrifice is that first the Torah establishes the reason for bringing the sacrifice, and then details the process by means of which the person achieves atonement. For example, in parashat Metzora we are told: "This is the teaching concerning the metzora on the day of his purification" (Vayikra 14:2). Furthermore, the Torah generally details the entire sacrificial process in the order in which it is performed. But in our parasha, the Torah starts by saying, "This is the teaching concerning the burnt offering" – and then suddenly introduces the process of taking up the ashes, rather than the process involved in bringing a burnt offering. What is the meaning of this?
We may say that the burnt offering (korban ola) serves two functions. On the one hand, the burnt offering is part of the general framework of sacrifices and, as such, is there to serve man. In other words, a person has a problem, and the burnt offering functions as the solution to his problem. But on the other hand, the verses reveal that this sacrifice also has another role: it serves the altar. "It is the burnt sacrifice that burns upon the altar… and the fire upon the altar shall continue to burn within it; it shall not be extinguished." The purpose of the burnt offering is to ensure a perpetual fire upon the altar. Thus, at the beginning of parashat Tzav, the Torah chooses to present first the function of the burnt offering as serving the altar, rather than as serving man, unlike the format in all the other sacrifices.
As we know, the burnt offering is the first sacrifice offered every morning upon the altar, and it was preceded by clearing the altar from the ashes of the previous evening's sacrifice, the service known as "raising up the ashes" (terumat ha-deshen). The verses teach us that the kohen who took up the ashes then had to change his clothing, because the work involved made him dirty; it could not be performed in the uniform required for sacrificial service, but rather required "work clothes." (These were not street clothes, but rather priestly garments of lesser quality.) The Gemara (Yoma 23b) teaches that the reason for the change of clothing is that one does not wear the same clothes to pour a drink for one's master as one wears to boil a pot for his master. Nevertheless, despite the fact that these are two different jobs, the Gemara (Yoma 22a) teaches that a kohen who is not prepared to clean out the ashes is not permitted to perform the sacrificial service, either.
These laws may be hinting at an important message. A person who wants to engage in Divine service, to serve in God's world, cannot put his own personal interests before the requirements of the task. A person who is not prepared to carry out the unglamorous, tedious, taxing, dirty work of cleaning out the ashes is not worthy of serving in the exalted capacity of offering the sacrificial service. For this reason, it may be that when the Torah defines the purpose of the burnt offering, it starts by telling us about the aspect of serving the altar; it presents God's "needs," as it were, before man's needs. A person who is prepared to pour a drink but is not prepared to boil the pot is not a true servant, and therefore he is not worthy of pouring the drink.
We may apply this idea to our own reality and say that a person who wants to live a life of sanctity, in the shadow of God, must leave his own personal interests behind general ones – whether Godly or communal. What defines us as servants of God is our ability to put our personal desires aside when they collide with higher values. This is what differentiates a person who is a servant of God from a person who is a servant of himself.
(This sicha was delivered at seuda shelishit, Shabbat parashat Tzav 5762 .)