By Clifford Fishman
This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36.
My grandparents lived on the fourth floor of a Bronx apartment building without an elevator or a dumbwaiter, which meant, among other things, they had to carry the garbage down three flights to the building’s garbage pails. So grandma had a strict rule: Anytime anyone left the apartment, he or she had to take down the garbage.
My grandfather was going to work or going to the synagogue? “Take the garbage.” My father was leaving for school? “Don’t forget the garbage.”
But the rule went well beyond family. A friend came over to study or visit? When he left, the friend was given a bag of garbage to throw away. Guests came to dinner? “On the way out, take down the garbage.”
When he was a kid, that drove my father crazy. “How can you treat guests that way?” My grandmother’s answer was simple: “They’re going down anyway, what’s the big deal? Nu, they think they’re too good to take the garbage? They think they’re Mayor LaGuardia?”
I was reminded of this by a passage in this week’s parshah. Leviticus 6:3-4 directs that each morning, a priest must clean up the ashes from yesterday’s burnt offering, take off his linen vestments, put on other clothes, and carry the ashes to the designated place outside the camp. Well, sure, someone has to clear away yesterday’s ashes before you can light today’s fire. But this passage raises two questions.
First, why the instruction as to clothing? The simple answer is, so the priest doesn’t soil his priestly garb. But, of course, our rabbis and sages searched for a deeper meaning. In his commentary on the Torah, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch reasoned that “the requirement that the priest wear old, humble, worn garb” when removing the prior day’s ashes emphasizes that mitzvot performed in the past must “recede into the background”; the past “must not clothe us in pride as we set out upon the new task to which every new day summons us” [The Pentateuch, page 394].
Second, why must a priest perform this mundane task? The obvious answer is that these aren’t just any ashes; they are the residue of an offering to God, and, therefore, the best way to ensure that the ashes are treated with the proper respect and awe is for a priest himself to collect the ashes and take them to the designated place.
The 11th century sage Bahya ibn Paquda, however, reasoned that requiring the priests to remove the ashes served as an antidote to the haughtiness that might naturally flow from the central, essential role the priests occupied in the spiritual life of the Israelite people.
Taking out the ashes reminded them that when they were off duty, they were no better than their fellow Israelites.
And when the Israelites saw a priest wearing old clothes and taking out the ashes, presumably they, too, were reminded that when the priests were not performing their public ritual functions, they, too, were just people — in God’s eyes, no better than anyone else.
As they so often did and do, our sages and rabbis, interpreting Leviticus 6:3-4, found profound meaning and guidance for proper behavior in the mundane. And in a way, so did my family. Because long after grandma had died and my father and his brothers got together, if someone in the family had accomplished something truly worthwhile, he or she would be praised and congratulated. And then inevitably, someone would say: “But don’t forget to take the garbage.”
Clifford Fishman, a long-time member of Tikvat Israel Congregation, recently retired after 42 years as a law professor at Catholic University.