Parshat Tzav- Humility in the Temple and Study Hall

by Rabbi David Silverstein

Parshat Tzav opens with a directive to the Kohanim to begin their daily work with the removal of a portion of the previous day’s ashes from the Alter. According to the Torah, each morning the Priest must “don his fitted linen tunic… separate the ash of what the fire consumed… and place it next to the altar.” Afterwards, the priest is then instructed to “remove his garments and don other garments [while he] removes the ashes outside the camp.” On the surface, this aspect of the Temple ritual seems functional in nature and not connected to the more elevated aspects of the priestly cult. In fact, the Talmud cites (Yoma 23b) an Amoraic dispute regarding the question of whether or not the removal of the ashes is bound by the same legal restrictions that we find in other areas of the temple service.

Rav Hirsch (6:4) however, sees profound religious significance in some of the more unique details of this ceremonial process. According to Rav Hirsch, the Bible’s demand that the previous day’s ashes be removed before proceeding with the new daily sacrificial cycle, highlights the Torah’s insistence that rituals be performed “with a new zest, as if we have never performed them before.” Moreover, Rav Hirsch explains that the Torah’s mandate requiring the priest to change his garment (to worn out clothes) before removing the ashes from the altar stems from the Torah’s attempt to inculcate a sense of humility into the aftermath of the previous day’s successfully performed ritual.  According to Rav Hirsch, wearing the older garments reminds the priest that he “must not regale himself in pomp for that which belongs to the past; it is superseded by the present mitzvah that each days bids us to observe.” Similarly, Rabbeinu Bachye (Hovot Halevavot 6) explains the changing of the priestly garments as a divine attempt to “humble [the priest] and remove the haughtiness from his heart.”

The centrality of humility in the Jewish tradition is highlighted by the bible’s description (Numbers 12:3) of Moses as the “exceedingly humble, more than any person on the face of the earth.” In fact, the Rambam (Deot 2:3) cites this biblical description as a proof to his theory that it is not sufficient for a person to strive for mediocrity in the realm of humility. Rather, one should strive to be exceptionally humble and remember that the bible links haughtiness with causing one to forget God.

Interestingly, the Ramchal (Mesilat Yesharim 22) notes that it is the sages themselves who are most susceptible to falling prey to false haughtiness. After all, by spending their days utilizing their intellects in the search for Truth, scholars may begin to look pejoratively at those who don’t spend as much time reflecting on questions of philosophy, law and metaphysics. Moreover, the scholar can get so caught up in his own scholarship that he may find it difficult to admit mistakes or recognize the limits of his intellectual capabilities. Instead of seeing academic accomplishment as a sign of greatness, the Ramchal suggests that the scholar see his God-given scholarly aptitude as a sign of responsibility. Just like the wealthy should use his wealth to take care of the poor and the strong should use their strength to take care of the weak, a scholar should use his wisdom as a vehicle for helping shape a more elevated society.

Interestingly, the challenge of intellectual hubris in the world of the academy was the subject of an interesting New York Times article (, entitled “Young minds in Critical Condition.” According to the author, “Our best college students are very good at being critical. In fact being smart, for many, means being critical. Having strong critical skills shows that you will not be easily fooled.” However, the author cautions that an overemphasis on one’s critical faculties may prevent students from actually being impacted by what they are studying. “In campus cultures where being smart means being a critical unmasker, students may become too good at showing how things can’t possibly make sense. They may close themselves off from their potential to find or create meaning and direction from the books, music and experiments they encounter in the classroom.” She concludes by powerfully noting that “Liberal education must not limit itself to critical thinking and problem solving; it must also foster openness, participation and opportunity. It should be designed to take us beyond the campus to a life of ongoing, pragmatic learning that finds inspiration in unexpected sources, and increases our capacity to understand and contribute to the world-and reshape it, and ourselves, in the process.”

In other words, instead of seeing intellectual accomplishment as a sign of hubris, students should recognize that access to knowledge generates an enormous responsibility. As much as students should be proud of their critical capacities, knowledge should be seen as a larger attempt to be impacted by what we study. Like the Kohen who humbly removes yesterday’s ashes from the altar, students too must remember that knowledge is constantly developing and that they should be humbled by their ability to probe its depths. Moreover, the temple ceremony involving the removal the ashes reminds us to act humbly despite our accomplishments. Just like every day is a new day in the world of the temple, so too every day is a new day in the world of the academy.

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