Elevating the Ashes

Moshe Kempinski
(dustrepeat of older article)
Mankind has struggled forever around the question of spirituality and physicality. Are the two compatible or are they mutually exclusive?

Mankind has struggled forever around the question of spirituality and physicality. Are the two compatible or are they mutually exclusive? Does the Divine only rest in the spiritual reality of our existence or is the physical aspect of our lives holy as well? Is the learning of torah such a high level of pursuit that focusing on the physical necessities of our lives simply becomes a necessary nuisance?

The temple work of the priests in the holiest of all places will give some direction.We are struck with the use of certain words in the beginning of the Torah Portion of Tzav;

And Hashem spoke (VaYidaber) to Moshe, saying (Leimor), Command (Tzav) Aaron and his sons, saying, This is the law of the burnt offering: That is the burnt offering which burns on the altar all night until morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn with it. (Exodus 6:1-2)

We read that Hashem is “Speaking” “Saying” and “Commanding”. The words “And Hashem spoke (Vayidaber) to Moshe, saying (Leimor) is not a new form of introduction to the presentation of new commandments and teaching. The seeming repetition of the action of speech is instructive.

Rabbi Shimshon Rephael Hirsch explains it in this fashion; “…The one who is speaking (Dibbur) gives a precise and detailed expression to his thought, while the one who is saying (Emor) transmits a complicated idea to the heart of another, explaining and developing it completely.“

What is more striking is the declaration that Hashem must “command” Aaron and his sons to comply with these new regulations.

Perhaps what may have had to be commanded was the following;

“And the kohen shall don his linen tunic, and he shall don his linen trousers on his flesh. And he shall lift out the ashes into which the fire has consumed the burnt offering upon the altar, and put them down next to the altar. He shall then take off his garments and put on other garments, and he shall take out the ashes to a pure place outside the camp. (Exodus 6:3-4)”
One of the priestly services performed in the Holy Temple involved clearing the excess ashes which accumulated upon the altar. First, the priest would remove ashes from the altar and place it on the east side of the ramp. After the priest then changed out of his priestly garments, into less ceremonial ones, he would remove the rest of the ashes outside the camp, to a “pure” place.

Rashi explains why the clothing must be changed because as he says;”a servant would not wear the same clothes to cook a meal for his master as he would to pour him wine. When a servant is in his master’s presence, a greater degree of deportment and formality is expected of him.

Yet most dramatically it is the priest that is being asked “to take out the garbage”. Here was the Priest involved with the work of the Holy of Holies being asked to remove the refuse from the altar. All logic would have assumed that his high station of honor would have been desecrated by this menial labor.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that this taking out of the ashes the previous day teaches us that each day must always begin fresh and invigorated without simply resting on the laurels of the previous day.

Reb Simcha Bunim uses the verse to highlight an important insight on our roles in this world. God did not put us on this earth to separate from the world but rather to elevate it. As a result being involved with the clearing, gathering and moving of the ashes was also part of our spiritual work. What was true of the temple is true in our everyday lives as well.
Reb Nachman of Breslev brought yet another level of understanding to these verses. These ashes that were left on the altar were the remains of a fiery and passionate sacrifice to G-d. Never assume, he teaches, that the fire, passion and faith that kept you burning until this point in your life has become irrelevant. Even if the inspiration has dimmed or has burned out and has turned into “ash,” those same embers can be into more passionate and inspired spiritual growth growth. That is the reason that this pile of ashes is treated with great respect and is taken to a “pure” place for resting.
We have not been put on this earth to separate from the physical but rather we are meant to “elevate it”. This ashes brought to rest in a pure place represents that truth.

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