[Based on various ideas found on Yeshivat Har Etzion’s VBM, and other sources. In writing this dvar torah, a number of lessons (perhaps more than usual) came to light that I wanted to remember for myself. As with anything I write and share through this medium, any and all mussar is purely for my own self.]

Parshat Tzav begins with the mitzvah of Terumas Ha’Deshen, the early-morning sweeping by the Kohen of the ashes that had amassed on the altar from the burning of the animals from the previous day’s sacrifices.

ג  וְלָבַשׁ הַכֹּהֵן מִדּוֹ בַד וּמִכְנְסֵי-בַד יִלְבַּשׁ עַל-בְּשָׂרוֹ וְהֵרִים אֶת-הַדֶּשֶׁן אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכַל הָאֵשׁ אֶת-הָעֹלָה עַל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְשָׂמוֹ אֵצֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ 3  And the priest shall put on his linen garment, and his linen breeches shall he put upon his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes where the fire had consumed the burnt-offering on the altar, and he shall put them beside the altar.
ד  וּפָשַׁט אֶת בְּגָדָיו וְלָבַשׁ בְּגָדִים אֲחֵרִים וְהוֹצִיא אֶת-הַדֶּשֶׁן אֶל מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה אֶל מָקוֹם טָהוֹר 4  And he shall put off his garments, and put on other garments, and carry forth the ashes outside the camp unto a clean place.

Q1: What lessons can be learned from this practice of tidying up the Mizbeach?
Q2: Furthermore, Rashi notes that the word MIDO (3rd word in passuk 3, above) teaches us that the Kohen had to always wear garments that fit him properly; his clothes had to be properly measured to fit his proportions. What is the significance of this word/concept, and why is it being taught here, of all places?

1. To begin, the Sefer Ha-Chinuch offers perhaps the simplest approach, that the Terumas Ha’D-deshen serves a strictly aesthetic function. It is only appropriate that the altar, upon which offerings are brought to Hashem, should remain clean.

2. The Chovot Ha’Levavot suggests that it is meant to humble the Kohen as he begins his day of avoda. Understandably, a certain level of pride was associated with the holy service, an exclusive privilege of the Kohanim. As he begins his service in the morning, the ‘attending’ Kohen must perform what might appear as a demeaning task – clearing the Mizbeach of ashes – which would serve to remind the Kohen, that while he was performing sacred activities throughout the day, he is still flesh and blood – a man chosen to represent his fellow men. He serves Hashem, but he also serves the people’s interests, and has to clean up after himself, so to speak, thus reassuring the people that the Kohen was ‘one of them’.

3. Lessons of humility can also be learned from the specified garb required of the Kohen who was performing the Terumas Ha’Deshen .  As noted above, the Torah decides to teach the halacha that the Kohen must wear properly fitted garments in this section of Terumas Ha’Deshen. As is often the case, the Torah introduces a law in a context where we would have least expected it to apply. At first glance, this essentially custodial work seems too undignified a task to obligate a Kohen to adhere to the same strict dress code as when he performs his other ritual services. Furthermore, the Kohen performed this ash sweeping in the early morning, when no other human was around to see him doing the sweeping; so if he’s sweeping ashes, in the early morning, when no one is looking, why not just wear an old pair of sweatpants? Why must he wear perfectly fitted clothing, and the same type of clothing he wears when he’s performing the ‘important’ service?
I think the lesson is twofold:

  • (a) Sometimes the Torah’s perspective differs from our intuitive perspective, and it is theTorah’s perspective that ultimately matters. Despite our inclination that sweeping ashes isn’t particularly noble or glorious, the Torah considers this sweeping to indeed be virtuous and meaningful. It ranks on par with the other Temple rituals, and thus it requires the same respectable appearance. The same holds true not just for the act of sweeping but for the ashes themselves, which must be disposed of properly and from which no benefit may be derived (as discussed in Gemara Me’ila 9a). Despite what we might ordinarily think about a heap of ashes (which is probably not much), the Torah ascribes value to such ashes, obligating a proper handling and dignified disposal of them (thus the Torah’s wording ofv’heirim es ha’deshen = the Kohen “shall take up/uplift the ashes”, instead of just ‘clean’ the ashes).

We must mold our perspective based upon our objective, unbiased understanding of the Torah’s instructions, rather than insisting upon our own predisposed value judgments. (This concept brings to mind one of the lessons learned from Moshe personally taking on the responsibility of digging up Yosef’s bones in Parshat B’shalach as Bnei Yisrael left Egypt – a seemingly menial, lowly task, which Moshe proudly embraced and regarded as a tremendous privilege.

  • (b) Even though no other human would see the Kohen, so there was no issue of chilul Hashem, the Kohen still had to wear dignified attire because he was serving Hashem. Service of Hashem of any kind requires a respectful manner of dress, which helps keep us in the proper mindset. How much more applicable when we are representing and serving Hashem, and others can see us…

4. Rav Meir Goldvicht suggests that removing ashes symbolizes the primary prerequisite to hashra’as Ha’Shechina  – the resting of the divine presence among Bnei Yisrael, which is one of, if not the, most important function of the MishkanPractically speaking, removing ashes cleared space on the surface of the Mizbeach.  Symbolically, in order for Hashem’s presence to reside among the Jewish people, we must clear and create space for the Shechina.  Rav Goldvicht illustrates this point by drawing a fascinating analogy to human relationships, particularly marriage. Marriage means bringing somebody else into one’s life, which necessarily means making space for somebody else, and lowering one’s self-serving demands so that one can share his/her life with another person.
It is no coincidence that Chazal say that the Shechina resides in the home of a harmonious marriage.  If the husband and wife have mastered the art of “making space,” of taking less for themselves, so that they can give more to the other, then they can also experience lives filled with and imbued with Hashem’s presence. Hashem ‘cannot’ enter our lives if we do not make space for Him – (speaking to myself alone) a timely lesson in this age of constant media bombardment and potential for distraction. If we don’t make time or carve out room for Hashem and His expectations (kovea itim la’torah, for example), then we can’t expect to feel a closeness with Him.

This is the meaning of the statement in Gemara Sanhedrin 7a: “When the love between my wife and I was strong, we were able to sleep on the blade of a sword.” In other words, neither of us took up space; each one giving space to the other… “but when our love was not strong, there was not enough room for us to lie together even in a bed of 60 amot.” The less territorial a person acts, the more influence he can have. The more space a person tries to take at the expense of his fellow, the smaller his influence.

Rav Goldvicht further suggests that this theme may underlie the famous Mishna in Pirkei Avos 5:5, that during the times of the Beis Hamikdash, “omdim tzefufim u’mishtachavim revachim” – the people in the Temple courtyard would “stand crowded but bow comfortably.”  The plain meaning is that despite the crowded conditions in the Temple courtyard when the entire nation visited the Mikdash, when it came time to bow, everyone miraculously had plenty of room to comfortably bow on theground.  Taking it one step further, Rav Goldvicht suggests, this miracle alludes to the theme of “making space.” When people crowd in the Temple, and they are prepared to confine themselves to a limited space in consideration of others, then “mishtachavim revachim” – everyone is able to serve Hashem properly.  The more adept we become at insisting on less for ourselves, being mevateil our kavod, and offer more to others, the more meaningfully we can bring the Shechina into our lives.

5. Finally, I would like to suggest that the concept of clearing away remnants of korbanot/service to Hashem, is a lesson in derech eretz regarding religious worship. We are absolutely supposed to immerse ourselves in avodas Hashem, but that is no excuse to behave in such a manner that would inappropriately infringe on others. We shouldn’t be ashamed of our religious practice, but we also shouldn’t ignore basic etiquette that should be afforded to others. We need to strike a balance; to act as Torah-observant Jews, while also being me’urav im habriyot.  The Kohen performed the Avodah, and the Kohen had to clean up the remnants from it; not someone else. Not a Levi or a Yisrael. The Kohen.As we practice our Judaism, it is our responsibility to do so in an orderly and appropriate fashion, thereby creating a Kiddush Hashem, and hopefully performing the given mitzvah in the fullest and most shaleim way possible.

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