The Torah section of Tzav begins by telling us (Vayikra 6:1-4): “And G-d spoke to Moses, saying: Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the law of the burnt-offering; it is the burnt-offering [that stays] on the flame, on the Altar, all night until the morning, and the fire of the Altar should be kept aflame on it.
The priest shall don his fitted linen Tunic, and he shall don linen breeches on his flesh; he shall separate the ash of what the fire consumed of the burnt-offering on the Altar, and place it next to the Altar. He shall remove his garments and don other garments, and he shall remove the ash to the outside of the camp, to a pure place.”
One may note in the aforementioned verses a seemingly unusual emphasis that the Torah places on the priests’ duty to remove the ashes of the sacrifices. Of all the things to mention, when G-d first directs His complete attention to the priests’ duties, removing the ashes is chosen, before most everything else that one would consider deserving more attention. Why the prominence of this duty of removing the ashes?
We find this issue addressed by the great 11th century scholar and ethicist R. Bakhya Ibn Pakuda in his famous work Chovot Ha’Levavot (Sha’ar Ha’Khniah, Chap. 6, Section 7): “The work one has accomplished should be petty in his eyes. He should be perturbed in spirit because of his shortcomings in the fulfillment of his obligations to G-d and to his fellow men. He should beseech G-d for aid and strength, and, in respect to the Creator, one should put aside all conceit and renounce personal grandeur and dignity while performing his service to G-d, whether alone or together with groups of people, as Scripture reports concerning Aaron, who, despite his high stature, was to ‘separate the ash.’ G-d obligated him to remove the ashes every day perpetually in order to induce humility in him and remove conceit from his heart. Similarly, it is said concerning David [Shmuel II 6:16], ‘And she [Michal] saw King David leaping and dancing before G-d.’ It is further said [by David in Tehillim 119:46], ‘I will speak of your testimonies before kings and will not be embarrassed.’ ”
In giving prominence to this duty of removing the ashes, the Torah is emphasizing the need to put aside personal feelings of honor and pride when it comes to our obligations to and expressions of closeness to G-d. When none other than the famed king of Israel, David saw the arrival of G-d’s Holy Ark, the joy that overcame him was expressed in uncontrollable dancing at the sight of it, and King David put aside his personal pride in deference to his expression of joy in his closeness to G-d and His Holy handiwork. So G-d expected from his messengers, the kohanim (priests), despite their very dignified status, to keep matters in perspective. Even something as menial as taking out ashes for someone of such high dignity as even the Holy Temple’s priests is not something uncalled for, for it was a duty towards G-d and His Temple.
When there is a noble task standing before a person, even if the task may seem menial and below the person’s dignity, he should not let his pride prevent its performance, for it is for G-d, which exalts His dignity and His pride, something much more important and valuable than our own. It is He Who provides us with the circumstances that give us dignity and pride! How then can we forego His exalted dignity for ours? It is this concept that has spurred some of the greatest among us over the ages to forego their own pride to do that which was important for the sake of G-d and in line with His wishes. Whether for the honor of a synagogue or showing concern for a fellow Jew, whether it involved cleaning up or traveling miles out of one’s way, those most dignified amongst us did not hesitate to do what was needed to further the fulfillment of the Word of G-d.
None other than the most dignified priest was not too big to take out the ash in service to our G-d. Certainly, we of much less stature than Aaron and his sons should not let our pride get the best of us when we have to do something for G-d.
Rabbi Yisrael Kaniel is the Associate Director for Religious Affairs at B’Ahavat Yisrael