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 clean place. (Leviticus 6:3-4)
It's a dirty job, but somebody's got to do it. Sacrifices are a messy business, as we read last week in Vayikra. They involve splattering blood, pulling out entrails, lots of flame, and eventually—fatty ash.
The first part of Tzav asks: Who wants to deal with the mess? It's a bit like cleaning up your house for Passover next week. Where do you even begin to start cleaning up all the chameitz?
The positive mitzvah of t'rumat hadeshen, "offering the ashes," begins our portion.
In ancient times, t'rumat hadeshen was performed daily at dawn by a priest. It involved removing a portion—an offering—of the ashes. The selected priest took a special silver ash-shovel from its place between the ramp and the southern side of the altar, dug out a scoop of ashes from the heart of the embers, brought it down the ramp, and deposited it in an open pit in the floor of the Sanctuary on the eastern side of the ramp. There, as Rashi explains, from day to day, "all of the [ashes] are absorbed there in their place" (Rashi on Leviticus 6:4).
The ashes of the previous night's sacrifice were still considered to be holy. They were not merely to be swept aside into the air or dumped somewhere into an inglorious bucket. They were the trace evidence that something holy had occurred, and as remnants of that holiness they were precious. So precious were they, in fact, that no mere Temple lackey was called to dispose of them, but rather, a priest himself had to take care of this sacred residue.
How can leftover material contain holiness? After the destruction of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001, ash covered the streets and the people of New York. We all can vividly recall images of men and women walking around dazed, like gray ghosts. The powder that remained was the remnant of chairs, tables, glass, concrete, paper, flesh, and blood. The ash that fell that day was holy. Cleaning up the wreckage of that horrific day was menial but sacred work. After the fires were out, hands moved stone and steel and, day-by-day, carted away the remains of what had once stood. The men and women who cleared the debris were humbled by their task and acted on behalf of others who needed their expertise and care.
Rabbeinu Yonah of Girondi (1180-1263) explains the juxtaposition of the command to sweep ashes with that of the burnt sacrifice. A person must realize that sometimes what is considered menial work in human eyes merits the highest accord in God's eyes. The mitzvah of sweeping the altar is prefaced with the word tzav, "command," and placed next to the burnt sacrifice. One must realize that the little, seemingly unhallowed acts of our lives also can yield great sanctity.
Judaism is not so concerned with the performance of large and glorious deeds as it is with small, often unnoticed, acts of kindness. Our Torah teaches us to refrain from taking a mother bird with her young (Deuteronomy 22:6); to help an enemy lift up his fallen donkey (Exodus 23:5); and to care for the widow (Exodus 22:21-23; Deuteronomy 24:17, 20) and the stranger (Exodus 23:9; Leviticus 33-34; Deuteronomy 24:17, 20). Our charge is not to change the world, but to change ourselves. Small acts of kindness are not world-shaking events, but they are the foundation upon which a better and brighter world is made. Even a priest, the highest caste of ancient Israel, was not too high to clean and remove ash.
I'll never forget that after one large musical event at our synagogue, I was helping to clean up in the kitchen, when a fellow I was dating at the time berated me, saying, "The temple hires people to do that." We eventually broke up—but his attitude is prevalent in our Jewish institutions today. Colleagues have said that my preparing for or cleaning up after programs "diminishes" me in the eyes of my congregation. If that is so—so be it! If a priest can take out ashes, I think I can put some chairs away. The fact that our houses of worship have maintenance workers does not diminish our responsibility to help them, and one another, maintain our sacred space. It is an act of humility and menschlichkeit to do so.
A story is told of the Alter of Novhardok (1848-1919), Rav Yosef Yozel Hurwitz, a great rabbi in the nineteenth-century Musar movement. A deadly typhus epidemic had spread through Kiev, and some of his yeshivah students became ill. One morning, the great Rav Yosef was found cleaning the yeshivah toilets (Chaim Ephraim Zaitchik, Sparks of Mussar: A Treasury of the Words and Deeds of the Mussar Greats [Nanuet, NY: Feldheim Publishers, 1985], p. 132).
There is also a Chasidic story about a young and ambitious scholar who came to his learned, respected rabbi in great distress. "Rebbe!" he cried. "I come home from the yeshivah an hour before Shabbat, and the table is not set, the children are not bathed, the house is a mess! How can I concentrate on my studies when I have such problems? What should I do?" He was almost breathless with anticipation of the scorn the rabbi would heap upon his hapless wife. "What should you do?" the rabbi responded with raised brows. "Grab a broom!"
By the Way
- To affect the quality of the day, that is the highest of arts. Every man is tasked to make his life, even in its details, worthy of the contemplation of his most elevated and critical hour. (Henry David Thoreau,Walden , reprinted in The Writings of Henry David Thoreau, vol. 2 [Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1906], p. 100)
- It's sad but true that if you focus your attention on housework and meal preparation and diapers, raising children does start to look like drudgery pretty quickly. On the other hand, if you see yourself as nothing less than your child's nurturer, role model, teacher, spiritual guide, and mentor, your days take on a very different cast. (Joyce Maynard, "A Mother's Day," Parenting Magazine, June/July 1995)
- When Rabbi Elazar was once sick, Rabbi Yochanan visited him, saw that he was crying, and asked him why: "If it is because you have not studied enough Torah, we know that even one who does only a little is rewarded if his intentions are good; if it is because you lack food, not everyone merits two tables (in both this world and the next); and if it is because you have lost children, this is a bone of my tenth dead son." He answered, "I am crying because of the beauty that will decay in the dust!" He responded, "Then you do have a reason to cry!" and they both cried. He asked, "Do you enjoy suffering?" and he replied, "Neither it nor its reward!" so he took his hand and raised him up. (Babylonian Talmud, B'rachot 5b)
- How does Thoreau's charge to "affect the quality of the day" echo God's command to the priest to perform the daily t'rumat hadeshen (offering of the ash)?
- In what ways can you use Joyce Maynard's thoughts on the drudgery of parenting to change the way you view your daily tasks around the house and with your family? Can you find holiness in making peanut butter and jelly sandwiches or in folding laundry
- Why do you think it is acceptable for Rabbi Elazar to cry for "the beauty that will decay in the dust"? What does he recognize in the nature of the world, and what does Rabbi Yochanan do to ease his friend's suffering?
Cantor Jessica Epstein is the cantor at Temple B'nai Abraham, Livingston, New Jersey.
Tzav, Leviticus 6:1–8:36
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 781–798; Revised Edition, pp. 686–700;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 593–614