Weekly Portion, Toldot, Bereshit
2008 by Asher ben Shimon
to Torah Portions Archive
In this week's Torah portion Toldot we read the following:
"And there was a famine in the land, aside from the first famine that
had been in the days of Abraham, and Yitzchak went to Avimelech the
king of the Philistines, to Gerar. And Hashem appeared to him, and
said, "Do not go down to Egypt; dwell in the land that I will tell
Our sages explain: G-d said to him: "You are a burnt-offering without
blemish (This refers to the Akeida where Avraham had been instructed
to sacrifice his son though it had later turned out to be a test).
Just as a burnt offering becomes unfit if it passes out beyond the
Temple enclosures, you too will become unfit if you go out of the
In general, the law that prohibits one to take out a burnt offering,
applies only to an animal which had been already sacrificed on the
altar. A live animal that is about to be offered may be taken out of
temple grounds. Why then did Hashem say that Yitzchak was not allowed
to leave the land of Israel? Yitzchak was a living person so this
prohibition shouldn't apply!
Two weeks ago we discussed the story of the Akeida; Avraham
slaughters a ram instead of Yitschak after Hashem notifies him that
it had never been his intention to see Yitzchak killed. Over every
sacrificial act that he performed, Avraham prayed, "May it be Your
will that this should be deemed as if it were being done to my son:
as if my son were slaughtered, as if his blood were sprinkled, as if
my son were flayed, as if he were burnt and reduced to ashes."
Based on this we can say that Yitzchak was indeed considered a burnt
offering that was already burned. The Midrash goes as far as to say
that Yitzchak actually died at the time of the Akeida, and had to be
It is interesting to note that whenever the sages talk about the
merit of the Akeida, they mention the ASHES.
To bring two examples:
In the portion of Bechukotai we read the following.
"And I will remember My covenant with Yakov, and also My covenant
Why is the expression "remembering" not used with Yitzchak?
Because "Yitzchak's ashes always appear before Me, gathered up and
placed upon the altar" and therefore, G-d does not have to "remember"
Yitzchak, for Yitzchak is never forgotten.
The Talmud tells us that when the Jewish people built the second
temple after many years of exile they knew how to determine the exact
place of the altar because the ashes of Yitschak were still there.
In the beginning of the Torah portion of Tzav where it discusses the
laws of burnt offerings, it instructs what to do with the left over
ashes. First a Kohen takes from the ashes and puts them down next to
the altar. Then the Kohen changes his clothes and takes out the ashes
to a (ritually) clean place outside the camp.
If so, how can we say that Yitzchak's ashes are still on the altar?
Isn't it the law that they have to be removed?
There are two answers to this question. Firstly, the Torah says to
place the ashes next to the altar. This refers only to a legitimate
altar as specified in the temple laws. The altar built by Avraham did
not fall into that category. Therefore, there was no way to place the
ashes next to the altar.
Secondly; the reason why the old ashes are removed, is to make place
for the next shift of sacrifices. Since in the case of Avraham there
would not be any another offerings, there was no need to remove the
Since there was no obligation to remove them and on the other hand we
know that anything that comes into contact with the altar becomes
holy, we may assume that Avraham did not remove the ashes. That is
why Yitzchak's ashes are still there.
From the fact that our sages always mention that Yitzchak's ashes are
still on the altar -despite the fact that in general ashes have to be
removed- in connection with the MERIT of the Akeida, we can conclude
that this has a special message for us.
The Halacha is that once something has been burned, it is no longer
considered to be what it originally was. For example, bread on
Pesach. By burning the bread or other types of Chametz, one fulfills
the obligation to destroy it. The ashes are not considered part of
the original bread.
Concerning a korban (sacrifice) we find that Hashem takes notice of
their `smell' only for as long as they burn. Once they are burnt out
they do not continue to have an effect in the higher realms.
According to this we have to understand why we remind Hashem of the
Akeida with the ASHES. Ashes seemingly remind of the termination of
the sacrifice. Why then does it say that they are our merit?
There are three ways in which the reward of a Mitzvah can affect the
person who fulfilled it, at a later time.
1) The Mitzvah itself and its effects were done in the past for which
a lasting reward was given. In such a case the reward comes
completely after the Mitzvah.
2) The Mitzvah itself was done in the past but it continues to
actively influence the person. In case of a Mitzvah with a lasting
influence the reward will come in connection with something still
happening at the time the reward is being received.
3) The original act of the Mitzvah is constantly being renewed.
To illustrate with an example from the Talmud.
King David was once taking a bath. Suddenly he realized that he was
not fulfilling any Mitzvot at that time. Then he remembered that he
was circumcised and he calmed down.
Obviously he had put on his Tefilin in the morning. He had put the
box on his arm near his heart and on his head to submit his desires
and thoughts to Hashem. The actual Mitzvah had been done in the
morning but the effect was still palpable. (A type 2 Mitzvah).
Circumcision however is a Mitzvah of the third category. Although the
actual act can be performed only once on the eighth day, it is
considered as if every second of the day the Mitzvah is being
fulfilled anew. If one were not circumcised he would lack in the
fulfillment of the Mitzvah TO BE circumcised. (The Mitzvah to PERFORM
the actual deed is a different one, which may have a lasting reward
but is not considered a `3')
The Akeida goes into the category of constantly renewed action.
Therefore Yitzchak's ashes are currently on the altar as if he was
just sacrificed anew. This also explains how it presently causes a
pleasant smell by Hashem since he is constantly `burning'.
What are ashes and what do they mean to us?
Ashes are those elements that were not consumed by the fire. In
general all physical object consist of four elements. Fire, water,
air, and dust. Fire has the power to destroy the connection and have
three of the elements return to their source. The dust cannot be
consumed because it is too coarse.
A burnt offering symbolizes the unification of all physical with its
source. Certain elements in our lives can become completely consumed
by the heavenly fire and unify with their source. When we use wool to
make Tzitzit and leather to make Tefilin those items become totally
spiritual. There are however also `ashes' items in our lives. Since
they cannot completely unify with holiness they have to be REMOVED
from the altar that represents pure holiness.
As we mentioned before there are two levels in that too. Some of the
ashes are removed from the altar and put NEXT TO it. The rest has to
be removed to a `clean' -kosher- place OUTSIDE the camp.
"All your actions should be for the sake of heaven." and "Know Him
in all your ways." are two advises we received from out sages.
When our actions are merely `for the sake of heaven' they remain
mundane actions. Those are the ashes that were taken out of the camp.
They are not specifically holy actions; they are not in Hashem's
camp. Nevertheless they are in a clean place. They do not oppose
Better would be to have the ashes placed next to the altar. "Know him
in all your ways." The actions remain `ours' (Your ways) but as we do
them we think of their ultimate purpose. We eat and drink in order to
serve Hashem with more strength.
Following the point of view that Yitzchak was actually slaughtered it
comes out that he had an advantage over his father who was thrown in
a fiery furnace. By a miracle Avraham was not touched by the flames
at all. Yitzchak on the other hand was completely burnt to ashes. The
ability to give oneself over physically with the entire body comes
from the highest part of the soul the way she is in her source in
complete union with Hashem. When that source shines in a revealed
manner in the body the physical aspect is not even felt.
This is the reason why we mention Yitzchak's ashes the way they are
still ON the altar. When ashes resemble independent physical objects
that are being utilized for a good purpose they must still be removed
from the altar. In Yitzchak's case even the physical, the ashes, was
completely permeated with a realization that everything is G-d. and
that there is nothing but Him.
Our daily prayers were instituted to replace the sacrifices once
brought in the holy temple. It is customary to read the portion of
the Akeida before starting the morning prayers.
The purpose of our prayers is to think and contemplate about Hashem
until we feel ready to submit all our actions and feelings to Him.
After the prayers are over and we return to our daily schedule of
working and eating etc. we may conduct ourselves in a way that
our `ashes' are taken of the altar or even taken out of the camp
We mentioned earlier that the reason why the ashes have to be removed
is to make place for the next offering. Our morning prayers should
leave us with the understanding that the only justification to leave
the `camp' and deal with mundane matters is to make place for a new
offering. -We can only go to work in order to have strength to pray
again the next day!
To come to this understanding we read about the Akeida first. By
reading about our forefather Yitzchak who was so closely connected
with his inner soul that even his physical aspects were permeated
with G-dliness, we will be reminded during our working ours that our
own `ashes' are also STILL ON THE ALTAR.
May we soon bring real burnt offerings in the Beit Hamikdash with the
coming of Moshiach NOW!
Translations in Torah Portions of the week are partially taken from the ArtScroll
Stone Edition Chumash and from
Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch Chumash
Torah Portions Archive
here or Torah for Tots