“Making the Menial Hallowed and Mundane Holy”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, continues parashat Vayikra’s theme of sacrifices. The laws of the Olah–the burnt offering, the Minchah--the meal offering, the Chah’tat–the sin offering and the Ah’sham–the guilt offering, are enumerated. These are followed by additional regulations pertaining to sacrifices, and the parasha concludes with the consecration ceremony of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood.

It is often tempting to avoid commenting on parashat Tzav, and to expound instead on the upcoming holiday of Passover, especially since this Shabbat, the Sabbath that precedes Passover, is known as Shabbat Ha’gadol–the Great Sabbath. As a result, parashat Tzav often gets short-shrift from many contemporary commentators who prefer to comment on the more upbeat theme of Pessach. And yet, as I have maintained throughout these weekly commentaries, there is really no verse, no jot, no tittle in the Torah that is without relevance. Indeed, I brazenly declare, every Torah portion is brimming with contemporary relevance.

As is well known, the Cohanim–the priests–supervise and personally conduct the sacrificial rites. In ancient times, as part of the Temple ritual, each priest was assigned a specific task. During the Second Temple period, the priests were organized into 24 groupings called Mish’mah’rot. Each Mishmar of priests served for a week at a time. Each of its subdivisions, known as Bet Av–father’s house, served a single day of that week.

Each day, two sacrifices known as the Korban Tah’mid–the daily burnt offerings, were brought, one in the morning and a second in the afternoon.

Ceremonies, in both the Tabernacle and later the Temple, involved much pomp and ceremony. The service in the Temple was accompanied by the sounds of the chah’tzotz’rot–trumpets, and the singing of the Levites. Though moderns may find it hard to fathom, the sacrificial rite was solemn and sacred, requiring absolute focus and awareness on the part of the priest. Members of the priestly caste were accorded great honor and respect. Because of their exalted status, any misstep in the ritual might result in the priest’s severe punishment, even premature death at the hands of Heaven.

To further enhance this already grand setting, the priests were robed in glory, garbed in four special garments that served as a sign of their consecration. So holy and so necessary were the priests’ services to the nation, that the priests’ upkeep and sustenance was assumed by all the Jewish people. Consequently, every farmer donated Terumah, a small percentage of the produce of his fields, that was given directly to the priests. Apparently, the rituals performed by the priest were quite moving and elevating–even the sprinkling of the blood and the burning of the incense. Those who have difficulty imagining this, need to remove themselves from contemporary times and transport themselves back 3,000 years.

Parashat Tzav opens with a description of the first temple service of the day. One might think that each morning the priests would be eager to get on “stage” before the admiring crowds and start the day with an especially impressive ritual. And yet, the priest’s daily “opening act” was hardly a crowd-pleaser. Known as Terumat ha’Deshen, it consisted of the daily removal from the altar of a portion of the previous day’s ashes. Following the removal of the ashes, two wooden logs were placed on the main altar to fulfill the overriding commandment of keeping the altar fires burning at all times (Leviticus, 6:6), and to never allow it to be extinguished.

If the temple service is supposed to inspire awe and reverence, why then does the daily service open with the removal of yesterday’s ashes? Perhaps this seemingly menial ritual is done first because the Al-mighty seeks to set the appropriate tone for the service by making certain that the ministering priests will serve with the proper attitude. After all, just being born to a priestly family is reason enough to gloat and glory. Knowing that one is a direct descendent of Aaron, the High Priest, is sufficient reason for one’s heart to swell with pride, and perhaps, even hubris. Consequently, the priests are instructed to begin their day with the removal of the previous day’s ashes. Tradition, in fact describes this ritual as a mere formality. A single scoop of ashes is placed beside the altar, while the rest of the ashes are heaped in a pile in the center of the altar. When that pile grows too high, one of the priests carries the ashes out of the city.

In effect, we see that the “prestigious” priests were now reduced to playing the role of glorified “sanitation” men. Each day commenced with a humbling experience. Simply stated, the removal of the ashes made certain that the priests would not allow their egos to get the best of them or allow them to be carried away by their own sense of self importance.

Keeping the priests humble, explains the unexpected manner in which the Torah in Leviticus 6:3, instructs the priests to prepare for these important services. “V’lah’vash ha’Cohen mee’do vad, ooh’mich’n’say vad yil’bash ahl b’sah’ro, v’hay’rim et hah’deh’shen ah’sher to’chal hah’aysh et hah’oh’lah ahl hah’miz’bay’ach, v’sah’mo ay’tzel hah’miz’bay’ach,” The Priest shall dress himself in his linen tunic and shall put linen breeches on his flesh. And he shall separate the ash which consumed the fire of the Oh’lah (burnt offering) on the altar, and place it next to the altar.

How odd that the priests are instructed to wear their fine sacred robes to remove the ashes from the altar. The priests, in effect, are commanded to don their formal wear to take out the “garbage!” Rabbeinu Bachya (1263-1340) the medieval bible commentator, explains that the priests must be garbed in their priestly dignity when performing such “menial labor” since this labor is performed as a service to G-d. By wearing his sacred clothes, the priest affirms his complete dedication to G-d.

Although the expression, “Don’t sweat the small stuff,” has become quite popular lately, most of us know full well that the truth is that “G-d is in the details.” Washing the dirt off the clothes of a dribbling senior citizen is a sacred act. Changing a child’s diaper is a sacred act. Ridding the environment of improper wastes is a sacred act. Insuring proper sanitation is a sacred act. Cleansing one’s body from waste is also a sacred act, so much so that it even merits a special blessing “Asher yah’tzar.

Contemporary designers have created a fashion rage by boldly marketing garments known as “Designer Jeans.” Truth be told, not many citizens aspire to sweep streets or remove garbage. How ironic it is then that so many choose to “dress” in clothes that objectively reflect those menial labors. Obviously these clothes are not so much a fashion statement as they are a philosophical statement. We can indeed make the profane holy and recognize that the building blocks of life are in the mundane and in the menial.

May you be blessed.