Memory and Innovation1
The kohen…shall separate the ash of what the fire consumed of the olah on the altar, and place it next to the altar…and he shall remove the ash to the outside of the camp.
Beginning each day with a bit of tidying up makes perfect sense. What better way to ready the mizbe’ach for the offerings of the new day than to remove yesterday’s unsightly residue?
The Torah, however, is not a guidebook on Temple maintenance. Moreover, separating the ash – the terumas hadeshen – does nothing to prepare the altar for the next round of korbanos. (If anything helped prepare the altar, it was not the separating of the ash, but the removal of ash that is mentioned immediately after, which Chazal understand as a different activity. This removal refers to the major collection of ash, not the small amount that is “separated” or “raised up” for the terumas hadeshen. (Later we will see that this very different mitzvah should also not be treated as a housekeeping chore, but as an integral part of the avodah.)
The halachic details of terumas hadeshen are entirely incompatible with treating it as part of the general cleanup duties of the Mikdosh. If it were the latter, we would expect that anyone could perform it. Instead, the terumas hadeshen is as much of an avodah as more glamorous parts of the daily procedure. It requires a kohen in “uniform,” rather than a janitor in overalls. The small amount of ash that is separated does not head for a garbage dump, but is deliberately and ceremoniously placed (and not scattered!) at a designated place near the altar. Most of us try to keep our trash well out of sight. We leave our receptacles hidden behind barriers – not in front of our entry doors. Yet the terumas hadeshen was left in a prominent position on the east side, or facing the people rather than off to the sides.
As a general rule of mikdash service, the holiness of anything used in the avodah comes to an abrupt end with the completion of the mitzvah with which it is associated. After the mitzvah runs its course, the strictures of me’ilah/ misappropriation end as well. In other words, an object sanctified during a Temple ritual loses its status as elevated material when the mitzvah is completed, and is no longer subject to the laws of me’ilah. Applying this to the terumas hadeshen, we would predict that once the ash is put in place, it no longer is treated as a holy object. This is not the case.
It should be apparent, then, that terumas hadeshen is not a physical preparation for the avodah of the new day. Rather, it is a powerful postscript to that of the day that preceded it. It summarizes the events of the preceding day, telescoping them into a reminder that stands sentry next to the mizbe’ach, powerfully declaring to those who come to serve HKBH: Nothing is new today. All that you will do here is a continuation of what has been in the past. You are to do it with new vigor and enthusiasm, but you need not reinvent the wheel. Your contribution to holiness has been planned for and charted out since antiquity. Every Jewish grandchild stands before G-d with the same mission in life that his ancestors bore. No one needs to innovate, to discover anew what Hashem wants of Man. You do not have to shoulder the responsibility for solving all problems in a vacuum. Furthermore, each person’s contribution builds on those of all who have come before in a long and rich past. The little mound of ash testifies to the continuity of yesterday with the avodah of today. It remains subject to me’ilah, but not as an exception to the rule. Its job is never done; therefore, we can never say that its function is completed, and it never, therefore, reverts to “civilian” status.
This is only half the picture. The mitzvah of terumas hadeshen is followed immediately in the text by the companion mitzvah – removing the bulk of the ashes from atop the altar, and taking them entirely out of the camp. In effect, all traces of the previous day’s avodah are carted off. Here the Torah conveys a very different – almost competing – message. We cannot rest on the laurels of the past – neither our own, or anyone else’s. Thinking about what already has been accomplished can be a deal breaker for any new undertaking, sapping it of passion, drive and enthusiasm. We must approach each day’s service with fresh purpose and vigor. Terumas hadeshen teaches us about continuity; hotza’as hadeshen invigorates us each day. It instructs us to approach each day of our lives as if it were our first in stepping forward to serve Hashem.
Between these two mitzvos, we find balance. We take guidance from the past, and comfort in being part of something bigger than ourselves. Buoyed by that continuity, we then see ourselves as indispensible and crucial agents in accomplishing what has to be done for the future.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Vayikra 6:3-4
2. Thus, the holiest part of a korban – the blood – drained from the altar to a place on the Temple Mount slope to which came farmers, who carted it off and turned it into fertilizer. This contrasts pointedly with the way other faiths dealt with the “leftovers” after some ritual sanctification. For hundreds of years, a Jew even looking at these leftovers forfeited his life, and provoked a pogrom.