There are times when studying Torah we cry out in frustration, is “why is the account of this important event told in so few words!” And there are times we cry out, “why is the text providing so much detail!”
The Book of Leviticus provides explicit detail of how to sacrifice animals on the altar, how to conduct oneself in their ritual life, and how to conduct oneself in their family life. When we read this week’s portion, Tzav, we notice that it is almost identical to what we read last week, in Parashat Vayikra, in which the system of sacrifices is established.
Parashat Tzav, however, provides an additional detail regarding the burnt offering (olah). After it is completely burned overnight, we find these curious verses: “The priest shall. . .take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.” (Lev. 6:3-4). The Torah has just taken two verses to describe what amounts to taking out the trash.
Why is this important? It teaches an important lesson about caring for our sacred places and for the people who take care of them.
The Sacrificial Cult was a messy business. The Israelites served God by sacrificing, burning, and cutting up animals– small (birds) and large (oxen) and everything in between (goats, sheep, etc.) They dashed the blood on the altar, and burned some offerings completely to ash. The altar was a mess. The worst we deal with on the TBE bimah is crumbs from the hallah!
However, maintaining the beauty and sanctity of the mishkan was important. And this required constant care and attention, performed by one of the priests, whose job it was to remove the ashes from the altar every morning and take them to a clean place outside of the camp.
I imagine that there were some responsibilities of caring for the Mishkan in general and the altar in particular that were not as desirable. However, by including this verse, the text indicates that even removing the trash is a sacred act that must be done with intentionality, reverence, and care.
If the priests are the group of people who “work” at the mishkan in ancient Israel, then you know we have several “priests” who work at Temple Beth El. Every Shabbat, our custodial team of Adam and Ron make sure that the sanctuary is prepared to be used for our worship, the social hall for our fellowship, and that the entire facility is prepared to be sanctified by our presence that welcomes God into this holy place. We may not always witness the dedicated work that it takes to get us to this place, but we know that without their care and devotion, we would not be able to celebrate Shabbat and all of our activities in the same way.
When you see our “priests,” Adam and Ron, be sure to thank them for their service, for “taking out the trash” for keeping our bimah beautiful and clean, and for adding great beauty to our work here.