One of the delights of the Book of Leviticus is the constant barrage of sacrificial details: dead animals, splattered blood, roasted entrails, and eventually, the leftovers -- the bones, the rendered fat, and the mounds of ash. For those not sated by such meaty details, the organizationally minded amongst us may wonder: at the end of a day of sacrifice, who was in charge of cleaning up?
This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, gives us an answer: The charred remains of roasted animals and their entrails were left not to a sacrificial janitorial team, not to the Israelites or Levites, but to the priests themselves – even to Aaron the High Priest. As recounted in the Torah, “He [the priest] shall take off his [priestly] vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes the outside the camp...” (Lev. 6:4). Rashi helps capture this scene in even greater detail, explaining that due to the huge amount of sacrificial ash and rendered fat, the High Priest would take off his sacred garb and don dirty clothes in order to handle the ashes (Rashi on Lev. 6:4). The spiritual leader, the intermediary between the people and God, started each day by cleaning ritual refuse in rags.
Imagine for a moment the President of the United States taking the Oval Office garbage out to the curb every morning. Imagine CEOs of Fortune 500 companies regularly cleaning out the corporate boardrooms to begin a day of business offerings. Here we have even Aaron the High Priest commanded to shovel ash in a sh’mata.
Rabbeinu Bahya, a biblical commentator from medieval Spain, explains this surprising role of the priest by deeming the disposal of such ash as an actual part of the sacrificial service (R. Bahya ben Asher on Lev. 6:3). Next to the pomp and circumstance of the sacrifices, the dumping of sacrificial waste seems to offer little of comparable worth. But it does force humility onto even the High Priest, and in this may lie the highest form of service. As Rabbeinu Bahya suggests, the smallest act from a place of humility is greater than the largest act from a place of arrogance.
We so often speak of the enormous imperatives and responsibilities on us as Jews. To be partners with God in the work of Creation. Pursuers of peace and justice. Ushering in an age of perfection. The audacious acts of grandeur are what capture headlines and headspace. But in our actual texts and traditions we find far greater attention placed on innumerable small acts, small deeds from a place of humility. Our Torah teaches us to refrain from taking a mother bird with her young (Deut. 22:6) – we should never be so haughty as to force a mother bird to endure the pain of watching her children be taken from her. We should never be too righteous to help an enemy lift up his fallen donkey (Ex. 23:5): even an enemy’s beast of burden deserves our attention. And we should never be to busy or self-concerned to care for the widow (Ex. 22:21–23; Deut. 24:17, 20) and the stranger (Ex. 23:9; Lev. 19:33–34; Deut. 24:17, 20). Our charge is not to change the world in one fell swoop, but to change a moment in time. The fallen beast, the forgotten stranger.
Humility helps open our eyes to grasp these moments in time – to shed our costumed arrogance and see the world through another’s eyes. The small acts, these moments of shoveling ash, are not world-shaking events. But they may be the most sacred.
As so often happens, this kind of eye-opening ethic was best expressed last year by our rising generation of youth. One of our first-grade classes, bedecked in superhero, unicorn, and Minion-themed attire, were parading down the block, each carrying paper bags with colorful decoration. When I asked the class what they were up to, one of them called out “We’re giving mishloach manot to people!” I learned that the grade was going around to different local businesses to give the workers Purim gifts. One of our children approached a nearby laundromat. The child handed the laundromat cashier her gift bag and said, “Thank you for washing our clothes!” At that moment, a laundromat worker stumbled, and laundry fell everywhere. Immediately, the child rushed to help pick up the spilled smocks and sweaters.
A small humble act of giving a paper bag containing two hamantaschen transformed that moment. A shared act lifted up a little of the world’s disarray. A child finally saw the face of a woman she had walked by hundreds of times. The beaming smile of the cashier revealed the power of this acknowledgement.
This week marks the beginning of spring, our secular and Jewish season for cleaning out the efforts of the past year and turning to the possibility before us. It seems appropriate to be reminded of the image of the priest shoveling ash – clearing out the altar, being reminded of the importance of these small, humble acts. We live in a world with an infinite need for these small acts, for individuals to open eyes and change moments in time. We need to overcome the pride that keeps us from repairing relationships and keeps us from finding opportunities to serve others. We need to set aside the pride that shuts our eyes from seeing the hundreds of moments a day that we may transform with just a few words, a hand on the shoulder, a paper bag with hamantaschen. In the Book of Exodus we are enjoined to become a “nation of priests.” (Ex. 19:67). Parashat Tzav reminds us that perhaps the most sacred moments for the priests existed outside the sacrificial spotlight. In donning the rags of humility, they performed small, simple acts. So too for us.
In the words of the American author and singer/songwriter, Carrie Newcomer:
A shovel is a prayer to the farmer’s foot,
when she steps down and the soft earth gives way ...
a friend is a prayer when they ask the right question,
when they bring over soup,
and they laugh at your jokes,
when they text you a photo,
because you are lonely, or weary, or just that far from home...” (“A Shovel is a Prayer” in The Beautiful Not Yet).
Sacred service is in the smallest acts. May each of us be blessed with many chances to shovel ash and change a moment in time.
Rabbi Ben Spratt is the senior associate rabbi at Congregation Rodeph Sholom in New York, NY. His passion continues to be building community beyond existent walls and boundaries and, in partnership with many others, has sparked Shireinu, Tribe, New Day Fellowship, and Minyan.
Rabbi Spratt focuses on the image of a priest clearing away ashes in Parashat Tzav as a reminder that this humble task is sacred too. Yet, by turning to consider the ashes themselves, the priest’s attention feels natural and appropriate, recognizing the ashes as holy in their own right.
Tzav instructs the priests in the correct removal of the ash on the altar left behind by the sacrifices that burn throughout the night. The new morning begins with this ritual cleaning up: “The priest shall… take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar ... he shall ... put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place” (Lev. 6:3-4). These ashes are not thrown out. Rather, they are respectfully removed and taken to a place dedicated to housing these remains, which are understood in the context of their original purpose, as a holy sacrifice.
The text does not explain what happens to either the ashes or the priest after the ashes are taken to the “pure place.” Presumably, the priest would go about his day, having made space on the altar for the sacrificial work to come.
This ritual offers a model for those of us with cluttered lives who need reminders that tidying can be life-changing. In closets and corners, we hide gifts from loved ones, unable to fully embrace or reject things we neither want nor need. We repeat actions that have become habitual way past the times that they held meaning for us.
My grandmother bequeathed to me a lovely antique-mahogany plant table, but after a few moves and years in storage, only two of its original three legs are actually attached to the table’s base, and the tabletop is badly warped. I can’t bring myself to throw it away. If there were some way to dispose of the table with sufficient dignity and respect, I would easily and gladly give it up along with countless other objects that I keep, half out of guilt, half out of obligation.
Tzav gives us permission to clean and clear while honoring those pieces of our lives that once served a purpose but now only take up space. It is our task to find that pure place, that ritual, where we may honor and leave the elements of our lives that once served a purpose, and make room for new heirlooms, new relationships, and new traditions.
Rabbi Nicole Berne is the director of youth engagement at Congregation Beth Israel in Scottsdale, AZ.
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
Haftarah, Jeremiah 7:21-8:3; 9:22-23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 983-985; Revised Edition, pp. 701-703