Smoke and (our own private) mirrors

Today I delivered a drash (commentary) on the weekly Torah portion, which was Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 through 8:36). I won’t reprint the entire thing here, just the part I liked the most. :-)

Tzav primarily focuses on the role of the priests in carrying out sacrifices on behalf of the Israelites. Moses instructs Aaron and his sons on where to make the sacrifices, what to wear, how to dispose of the ashes, etc.

I was struck by the repeated use of language about “turning sacrifices into smoke.” This is the phrasing the writers of Tzav use to say that an offering should be completely burned up. For instance:

“The token portion of the meal offering shall be turned into smoke on the altar as a pleasing odor to the Lord.”

“The priest shall turn the (fat of the guilt offering) into smoke on the altar as an offering by fire to the Lord.” 

“Moses washed the entrails and the legs with water and turned all of the ram into smoke.”

And so on.

Not a sacrifice! Someone is cooking potatoes on a DIY stove. But it still produces smoke. Photo: Frank Benson

Now, there are so many ways one could describe what is being done with these offerings. You could simply say that Moses burned up the entire ram. Or that Moses incinerated the ram. That he turned it into ash, that he turned it into cinders, that he burned it so thoroughly that the amount left was smaller than a pebble. 

But over and over, Leviticus tells us that these offerings were “turned into smoke.”

Why this emphasis on smoke?

Thinking historically, perhaps this was another of many steps in differentiating Judaism from the surrounding religions. Many ancient religions saw gods as similar to humans in that they needed to eat, and these societies viewed sacrifices as literally feeding the gods. Judaism took a different view of God—as being above and beyond human needs such as eating— and wanted to make clear that these ritual sacrifices were not Doordash for God. The sacrifices were not food for God’s survival. Instead, they were something intangible to please and connect with God: a “pleasing odor to the Lord.”  

But I also like to think about it metaphorically, especially as it applies to the guilt and sin offerings. The fiery sacrifice turns something solid and heavy and bloody into something light and airy and (to God, at least) pleasant smelling.

Isn’t that what we’d like to have happen with our transgressions and regrets? They weigh us down, we carry them heavily… but wouldn’t it be nice if we could let them float away into the air? Through the ritual of the sacrifice, that’s what these ancient Israelites were doing. 

Candle smoke. Photo: Tigerzeng.

So, with your indulgence, let’s do a little thought experiment.

Close your eyes. Think of one thing you’ve done in the past week that you regret because it was wrong. It doesn’t have to be a big thing: In fact, it’s most likely a small thing. Were you rude to the clerk at Safeway? Did you snap at your spouse? Did you read a news story and respond with cynicism rather than open-hearted empathy? Did you share a piece of gossip that, inside, you knew you probably shouldn’t? Did you gloat over someone else’s troubles? 

Take a minute. Think of one small thing that you regret. We’re going to sit here quietly while you come up with that thing.

(wait)

Okay, now picture that small thing as a heavy block of wood. It’s hard to lift. You’ve been lugging it around all week. You don’t want it, but there it is. It’s heavy.

And now — keep those eyes closed! — envision setting that block of wood on fire. You know what you did was wrong and you’ll think twice the next time such a situation comes up. You’ll do better. The block of wood is burning and getting smaller and smaller and lighter and lighter and this thing you regret is turning into smoke. There! It’s past. It’s floating away. You’ve learned something and will do better next time. The wood is gone and the weight is gone and the smoke is dissolving into a broad blue sky.

Take a deep breath now, a full breath. You’ll do better. You’re learning, all the time. It’s never too late to learn. Your lungs fill with fresh, clean air and the smoke is no longer even visible, but God smells the smoke from your offering and, indeed, it is a pleasing odor to Adonai.

Open your eyes.

Shabbat Shalom.

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One Response to “Smoke and (our own private) mirrors”

  1. Royce Sarah Says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Ilana!

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