2007One of the first mitzvot mentioned in Parshat Tzav is that of terumat hadeshen, or removal of the ashes. Every morning, a priest would take the ashes from the previous day’s sacrifices from the altar, removing them from the camp when a quantity of ashes had accumulated.
Ashes, Ashes, We All Fall Down
The commentaries understand this mitzvah in a variety of ways. The Sefer Hachinuch sees this mitzvah as serving an aesthetic or utilitarian purpose, saying that the altar becomes more beautiful when the ashes are cleared away, and that the fire burns better when there are no ashes under the flame. (Sefer Hachinuch, Mitzvah 131). Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch views this mitzvah symbolically, writing that the daily removal of the ashes represents putting aside yesterday’s accomplishments in order to “set out upon our task with full, renewed devotion as if we had never accomplished anything before.” (Hirsch on Leviticus 6:4). Finally, the author of Chovot Halevavot comments that the goal of this mitzvah is to improve the character of the priest by instilling humility within him. Performing the menial chore of clearing out the ashes from the altar each day served to remove haughtiness from his heart (Chovot Halevavot Gate 6, “The Gate of Lowliness” Chapter 6).
This last explanation takes on a special irony in light of a mishnah in Yoma. The mishnah describes how initially, any priest could perform the terumat hadeshen. When a number of priests wanted to perform the service they would race up the ramp of the altar, and whoever won the race would merit the job. In case of a tie, each priest would extend one or two fingers and they would count off to a predetermined number in order to break the tie. One time, two priests were tied running up the ramp. In his haste to merit the service, one priest pushed the other off the ramp and the second priest fell and broke his leg. When the beit din saw that this was a dangerous procedure, it decreed that the priest that would perform the terumat hadeshen would be determined by lottery (Yoma 22a).
How ironic is it that zeal to perform a task that was designed to instill humility could lead to such haughty behavior? What could be more self-serving than shoving a peer in order to merit an additional righteous act? Though at first blush, the story in the mishnah sounds very extreme, I think that it touches on a fairly common tendency. It can be tempting to want to be the most humble, religious, or righteous person, and it takes perspective to determine which actions are coming from true religious motives and which stem from a more superficial competition with others. Perhaps one litmus test between the two is how an individual acts in private, when no one else is there to observe his righteous behavior or to praise his accomplishment.
The mitzvah of terumat hadeshen demonstrates how a mitzvah that seems very far removed from our lives today can be relevant to us on several different levels. It illustrates the absurdity of a competition for who can be the most humble, and gives us an opportunity to examine the motivations behind our actions.
Written by Adena Frazer, Co-Director of the Jewish Learning Initiative, Hillel at Brandeis University
Additional commentaries and text studies on Parshat Tzav and Passover at MyJewishLearning.com.