January 21, 2021 |

Parshat Tzav: Making the most of a negative thought


This week's reading delves into finely detailed descriptions of the Tabernacle's sacrifices. How do we understand and integrate these images of the ritualized blood and fire into our lives today? Where does this text meet our most intimate and personal lives?

One stunning example of a personalization of the priestly offerings is found in the 19th century commentary from the Sefat Emet on this week's parsha. It takes as its starting point the theme of tending to the fire on the Tabernacle's altar. The Torah reads, “A fire must always burn, it must not go out.” (Lev. 6:6). The Sefat Emet personalizes this continual fire as representative of the eternal flame of love for God that burns within each of our souls.

In an elegant Hassidic twist, he sees the injunction of “you must not let it (the fire) go out,” as not just a prohibition, but rather as a promise – a promise that this flame of love within each of us will not, can not, be extinguished. Our love of God is an essential birth-right, as constant as gravity, a flame that can never be quenched.

The Sefat Emet adds that each stray, distracting or negative thought that arises in our minds is an olah, a burnt-offering, that is meant to be consumed in this flame of love. As the Zohar says, “an evil thought is a burnt-offering upon its altar.”

In the Sefat Emet's vision, we are each the consecreated priests whose sacred duty it is to have stray, debased and distracting thoughts! We are programmed to have negative thoughts so that we may take and bind them on an altar of God-consciousness and love. Our work as servants of the Most High is not that we should have only pure, God-focused thoughts, but that we are destined to have negative spirals of thinking. Our task is to actively engage those stray thoughts and bind them upon an inner-altar. The thoughts are consumed in the conflagrations of our connection to God. These lowest of thoughts become the most precious of offerings, morphed and redeemed in the flames of consciousness. This is our highest vocation and divine service.

In a beautiful moment of serendipity, one of my clients this week sat before me in anguish, lamenting over a negative and recurring thought that has been plaguing her. She is daily beset by an image of a photograph she had seen of her ex-boyfriend and his new girl-friend. She described how this vivid image literally rises up in her mind, overwhelming her with its persistance. Her description was a mirror-image of the teaching from the Sefat Emet where he links the 'olah', the 'rising' offering, to the rising up of negative thoughts. How fortuitious that we had on hand this teaching. The Sefat Emet offers us a model for a practical Torah-based tool for transforming negative thoughts into opportunities for sanctification.

Integration exercise:
Notice the next time you have a stray negative thought – whether it be an unfounded fear, an unproductive worry, an inappropriate desire, a caustic judgment. When this thought arises, don't just brush it aside, but rather take a hold of it, the way you might take a hold of calf, a ram, a pigeon. Imagine that you are binding it and lifting it up as a most esteemed offering. In your mind's eye, place the thought on the altar of your fiery and consuming love for God...on the altar of your trust that all things come from God and go to God. Remember that this thought has come to you not as a distraction or a curse, but as an opportunity for uplifting and sanctification. Do this every time a negative thought arises in you...for this is the priestly service that is yours and yours alone to perform.


God, with thirst for alchemy
And fist-fulls of compassion

Required of me
my most resilient obsession
to suit his royal self
with soot and ash
and smoky sleeves

A remembrance worn
Of that which we must

For the thing had long ended
But lest I lay with it
For the dreg of my days
It was demanded by edict
And Temple blaze

The fire
- a forgiving and practical blade -
sliced its hide with fiery tongue
inhaled its hulk
with longing lungs

consumed for me
The one

The one thing I had worth weeping for
The one thing worth building altars for

The unblemished, unfinished,
long-haunted, long-hunted for

And yet the fire was forgiving
She, with a strong hand,
- sure as any alchemist
Recast it
From stubborn flesh
to smoke and ash

A morph to silver cinder
And sweet nectar air

I watched its sudden shudder
shift and fade
watched the way
in streams of gray
it finally disappeared

Thankful for the altar made
And the smoke the thing became

With a prayer
that thus may all things
of thick resistance
find release
Into supple smoke
And swift upwardly streams of heat

This offering, the alchemy
from which the parch
of God - and man -
may drink


Chaya Kaplan-Lester

Joined: March 6, 2011

Chaya Kaplan-Lester is a psychotherapist, Jewish educator and writer. She is co-founder of The Jerusalem Center for Transformative Torah and Therapy. Her "Parsha Poetry" commetaries are popular across the Jewish spectrum, and can be found weekly on the Jerusalem Post online (along with youtube video...

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