Letter and Spirit

For the week ending 27 March 2021 / 14 Nisan 5781

Parashat Tzav

by Rabbi Yosef Hershman
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In with the Old – In with the New

There were two daily commandments regarding the leftover ashes on the Altar that were to be performed before arranging the pyre and kindling the Altar fire. The first, terumat hadeshen, consisted of taking one shovel filled with charcoal ash and placing it near the Altar. The second, hotza’at hadeshen, consisted of cleaning the Altar from all its ashes and removing it from the Jewish camp.

The act of cleaning the Altar was a housekeeping function, necessary to prepare the Altar for the new day’s service. But the act of removing a handful of the ashes of yesterday’s service was an act of service with a different function. Each day’s handful of ashes was carefully placed next to the Altar, with special care taken so that it would not scatter. These ashes were placed on the east side of the Altar — the side entrance for the people — so that they would serve to all as a remembrance of yesterday’s service.

These ashes had profound significance — they reminded the nation, at the transition to the service of the day that is about to begin, that the new day does not bring new tasks. The task that is incumbent upon us today is the same task that was incumbent upon us yesterday. Every Jewish grandchild stands in the place where his first ancestors already stood, and each new day adds its contribution to the fulfillment of the one task assigned to all generations. The mission is unchanging.

Normally, an object used in the Temple service which has completed its function is no longer subject to the prohibition of me’ilah — use of that object or remnant for profane purposes. This is the case with the remainder of the ashes, excluding this one daily handful. However, the terumat hadeshen — the handful removed — retained its holy character forever. Its holiness was never exhausted. This is because, in a deeper sense, the purpose of lifting the ashes was not to deposit them — that would have rendered them exhausted after deposit. Rather, because these ashes serve to recall the past throughout the future, that mission sustains their holy character forever.

If the terumat hadeshen begins the new day with a reminder that today’s service presents the same task as yesterday’s, hotza’at hadeshen signifies that the old must be cleared to make way for fresh devotion. We are to approach the task as though we had never accomplished anything before. While the memory of yesterday’s performance is to anchor our mission, it should not inhibit our own performance. Yesterday’s accomplishments belong to yesterday. Each day begins a new task. Every trace of yesterday’s devotion must be removed so that the new day can begin on a new basis.

While performing these acts of service, the kohen wore older and more worn-out priestly garments. He wore these humble garments when occupied with yesterday’s service to signal that we should not pride ourselves on past accomplishments. Rather, every day summons our full energies and devotion.

In Rav Hirsch’s day, reports circulated of recently discovered sections of earth in the Beis Yisrael neighborhood of Jerusalem, which were determined to be ashes of animal origin. A study in Germany in 1855 determined that this was the place where the Altar’s ashes had been ultimately placed. Its location is only a few blocks from Ohr Somayach Yeshiva — a fitting symbol of the unchanging task with renewed devotion that characterizes the mission of the Yeshiva.

  • Sources: Commentary, Vayikra 6:3-4

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