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The Torah's Weekly Portion, Toldot, Bereshit
Yitzchak's Ashes

Posted November, 2008 by Asher ben Shimon
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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 you."

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 Holy Land."

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 resurrected.

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 with Yitzchak."

Rashi comments: 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 ashes.

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 Hashem's will.

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 altogether.

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

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