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Torah Commentary
Tzav (March 28, 2015)

Benjamin J. Zeidman, Associate Rabbi

IT IS NOT MERE COINCIDENCE that we read Tzav this time of the year. We’ve turned our clocks forward, and Passover is just around the corner. We read this week: “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.” (Leviticus 6:3) It’s time for spring cleaning!

Extremely, extremely early in the morning, the priests would clean the ashes from the Temple altar and then take them outside the city walls and bury them. This act is one of the traditional 613 mitzvot, commandments.

The Mishnah tells us that so many priests wanted the responsibility to empty the ashes from the altar, to refresh, beautify and prepare it for a new day that they had to have a contest. All priests who wanted to fulfill the commandment of removing the ash would gather at the bottom of the altar ramp’s base. There would then be a mad dash, a race, to the top of the altar. The first to reach 4 cubits distance from the altar itself won the chance to remove the ash. If there was a tie, then they would all stand in a circle around the one managing this contest with their forefingers stuck out. The manager would pick a number at random and then count around the circle each finger until he reached his number. That priest who had the lucky finger got the job! The tradition of the race took place until one rather brash priest pushed a fellow priest and broke his leg. From then on the run was given up and the job was selected solely by counting fingers. It’s always one bad apple that ruins it for the rest of us.

Why was this job so special that priests competed for it even though it took place at such an early hour? The reason is still relevant to us now and is seen through the clothing. A priest was to put on simple clothing designed for work, when dealing with the ashes. He didn’t wear his ornate ritual garments. The Rabbis relate this to the servant of a king: When the servant is in the kitchen preparing the king’s meal, he wears inferior garments. When he serves the king his dinner, he wears his best of outfits.

Similarly, when we deal with the leftovers from yesterday, we do so with a manner that accords it with respect, but as Samson Raphael Hirsch explains: “One must not regale oneself in pomp for that which belongs to the past; it is superseded by the present mitzvah that each day bids us observe.” But the present mitzvah cannot take place without proper preparation. The priests of the Temple were responsible for removing the ashes from the previous day’s sacrifices, clearing the way for a new day and allowing for the important rituals taking place to continue.

So, too, we must consider our lives. That which already has come and gone — our choices and our mistakes, our opportunities grasped and the ones that fell through our fingers — is important and must be treated with respect. But, we must only do so in order that we may move to the present. The present, just like the next day’s sacrifices, was much more important than the ashes left over from the past. We must move on in our lives like the priests moved on — encountering each new day as it comes, learning from the day before but not letting the ash build up to the point where the next opportunity at sanctification becomes stifled by that ash.

Every day is a day for spring cleaning.

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