On the Holiness of Shmutz
On the Holiness of Shmutz
A young man comes to a rabbi and says, "Rabbi, I would like to study Talmud with you."
"Very nice," says the rabbi. "May I ask what background you have in Talmud?"
"None," says the young man.
"I see," says the Rabbi. "Have you studied the Mishnah, which lies at its core?"
"No," says the budding scholar.
"Yes, I see, and what of the Torah; have you studied Torah and its commentaries?"
"No . . ."
"Yes, well, you see young man, the Talmud is a very complex and complicated art. May I ask, what makes you think you are ready for such a task?"
The young man smiles patiently. "Well, Rabbi, I have an undergraduate degree from Harvard, and my MBA from Wharton. You teach. I am sure I will be able to learn."
"I'll tell you what," says the sage. "I will give you a test. If you pass, I will teach you Talmud. If not, maybe you will start by joining my Torah study class."
"Fine," says the young man, indulgently. "You can give me a test. How many questions will be on it?"
"Just one," says the Rabbi. "Are you ready?"
"Two men come down the same chimney. One comes out with soot on his face. The other's face is clean. Who will wash his face?"
Without even taking a moment to think, the young man replies: "The one with a dirty face."
"No," says the Rabbi. "The one with a dirty face sees the other with a clean face and assumes that his face is clean. Why would he want to wash a clean face?"
The young man smiles. "OK, you got me. But, give me another question and I will pass your test."
"You would like another question?" says the Rabbi.
"Yes," says the young man.
"Alright," says the rabbi. "Two men come down the same chimney. One comes out with soot on his face. One's face is clean. Who will wash his face?"
The young man smiles oddly, thinks a bit, and then says: "The one with a clean face."
"No," says the Rabbi. "They both will."
"The one with the clean face sees the one with the dirty face and assumes his face is dirty. So he goes to wash his clean face. And the one who thinks his face is clean can only assume that face washing after coming down the chimney is some sort of ritual, so he washes his face too."
The young man laughs. "I think I am beginning to learn something about the logic of the Talmud. I don't suppose you could give me just one more question?"
"You would like another question?" says the Rabbi." "Alright."
"Two men come down the same chimney. One comes out with soot on his face. One's face is clean. Who will wash his face?"
This time the young scholar ponders the question for some time and then replies: "They both will?"
"No," says the Rabbi. "Neither will; it's a klutz kasheh [a silly question]. Who ever heard of two men coming down a chimney with only one face covered with soot!"
"OK, Rabbi," says the young man. "When is your Torah study class?"
It's an old joke, but within it lies a deeper commentary on this week's portion. At the beginning of Parashat Tzav, we are taught a lesson on the holiness of soot and ash, and at the same time, we learn something of the complexity of the logic of Leviticus.
In Leviticus 6:3-4 we read:
The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place.
At first glance, this seems like a pretty ornate ritual just to take out the trash. Rashi and many of the classic commentators wonder endlessly about the exact nature of the clothing that the priest was to wear and why he would need to change into an entirely different set of clothing to complete the task by carrying the ash outside of the camp.
And, while the answer to this vexing question may remain a mystery, I would submit that this too is a klutz kasheh at its core. The real question we must ask ourselves here is not what the priests wore when performing the ritual of removing the ash from the altar, but why there was a ritual for removing the ash at all.
There is a hint of an answer that can be found within the word itself. The Hebrew word for ash is deshen, which can also be taken as an acronym for the phrase, davar shelo nechshav, "something without importance." So when the Torah teaches that the priest should "take up" (hairim) the ash while dressed in priestly attire, perhaps what it means is that even the ash of the altar was to be "lifted up" and recognized as something holy (Leviticus 6:3).
The ash of the altar is holy because it is the remnant of the sacrifices offered there cleansed by the fire of God's eternal flame (6:6). While it might have been easy for the priests to forget that as they woke each morning to perform their duties as God's garbage men, herein lies the lesson we were meant to learn.
Spending Sabbath dinner with family and friends gathered around you-candles glowing, sweet wine upon your lips, the smell of challah in the air-there is holiness in such moments to be sure. But, there will be dirty dishes to be washed after the candles have burned low, and the lesson we can learn from the ash upon the altar is that there is holiness in those dishes just as well.
Rabbi Joe Rooks Rapport is co-senior rabbi with his wife Rabbi Gaylia R. Rooks at The Temple, Congregation Adath Israel Brith Sholom, in Louisville, Kentucky. He received his Ph.D. from Washington University in 1988 and has taught Bible and Jewish thought for two decades at Bellarmine University in Louisville.
The custodian of our congregation is somewhat eccentric. For our purposes, it's only important to know that while he pays little attention to personal grooming and dress, he is meticulous in the work he does for all of us. He places Oneg Shabbat tables perfectly equidistant from each other by counting floor boards in our old wooden floor and makes sure that tablecloths hang down the exact same length on all four sides, measuring with a ruler. As we are a very small minority in our largely Christian community, I have more than once had our congregation identified to me as "the church across from the hospital where the man is out there every Friday afternoon, regardless of weather, polishing the brass railings." Watching him gather trash after a full morning of religious school or after a wedding or bar or bat mitzvah celebration, sorting the recyclables from the garbage, I am keenly aware that sometimes shmutz is just shmutz, no matter what exalted activity produced it. On the other hand, the people who deal with our shmutz are often invisible to us.
We live in a world in which disposing of the residue of our lives is often left to others. I'm not convinced there's any holiness at all in shmutz, but I do want to make sure we see holiness in the people who are usually responsible for cleaning up after us. I want to make sure they are recognized, that we stop to speak with them and acknowledge their humanity, as well as the divinity inherit in them. Maybe dealing with the dirt and smells of our lives will be the reminder we need. May we be humbled as the priests were when they followed God's commandment and took out the trash.
Rabbi Jack P. Paskoff is the rabbi at Congregation Shaarai Shomayim in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
<p><em>Tzav</em>, Leviticus 6:1–8:36 <br />
<em>The Torah: A Modern Commentary</em>, pp. 781–798; Revised Edition, pp. 686–700; <br />
<em>The Torah: A Women's Commentary</em>, pp. 593–614</p>