Memory and Innovation1
The kohen…shall separate the ash of what the fire consumed of the olah on
the altar, and place it next to the altar…and he shall remove the ash to the
outside of the camp.
Beginning each day with a bit of tidying up makes perfect sense. What better
way to ready the mizbe’ach for the offerings of the new day than to remove
yesterday’s unsightly residue?
The Torah, however, is not a guidebook on Temple maintenance. Moreover,
separating the ash – the terumas hadeshen – does nothing to prepare the
altar for the next round of korbanos. (If anything helped prepare the altar,
it was not the separating of the ash, but the removal of ash that is
mentioned immediately after, which Chazal understand as a different
activity. This removal refers to the major collection of ash, not the small
amount that is “separated” or “raised up” for the terumas hadeshen. (Later
we will see that this very different mitzvah should also not be treated as a
housekeeping chore, but as an integral part of the avodah.)
The halachic details of terumas hadeshen are entirely incompatible with
treating it as part of the general cleanup duties of the Mikdosh. If it were
the latter, we would expect that anyone could perform it. Instead, the
terumas hadeshen is as much of an avodah as more glamorous parts of the
daily procedure. It requires a kohen in “uniform,” rather than a janitor in
overalls. The small amount of ash that is separated does not head for a
garbage dump, but is deliberately and ceremoniously placed (and not
scattered!) at a designated place near the altar. Most of us try to keep our
trash well out of sight. We leave our receptacles hidden behind barriers –
not in front of our entry doors. Yet the terumas hadeshen was left in a
prominent position on the east side, or facing the people rather than off to
As a general rule of mikdash service, the holiness of anything used in the
avodah comes to an abrupt end with the completion of the mitzvah with which
it is associated. After the mitzvah runs its course, the strictures of
me’ilah/ misappropriation end as well. In other words, an object sanctified
during a Temple ritual loses its status as elevated material when the
mitzvah is completed, and is no longer subject to the laws of me’ilah.
Applying this to the terumas hadeshen, we would predict that once the ash is
put in place, it no longer is treated as a holy object. This is not the case.
It should be apparent, then, that terumas hadeshen is not a physical
preparation for the avodah of the new day. Rather, it is a powerful
postscript to that of the day that preceded it. It summarizes the events of
the preceding day, telescoping them into a reminder that stands sentry next
to the mizbe’ach, powerfully declaring to those who come to serve HKBH:
Nothing is new today. All that you will do here is a continuation of what
has been in the past. You are to do it with new vigor and enthusiasm, but
you need not reinvent the wheel. Your contribution to holiness has been
planned for and charted out since antiquity. Every Jewish grandchild stands
before G-d with the same mission in life that his ancestors bore. No one
needs to innovate, to discover anew what Hashem wants of Man. You do not
have to shoulder the responsibility for solving all problems in a vacuum.
Furthermore, each person’s contribution builds on those of all who have come
before in a long and rich past. The little mound of ash testifies to the
continuity of yesterday with the avodah of today. It remains subject to
me’ilah, but not as an exception to the rule. Its job is never done;
therefore, we can never say that its function is completed, and it never,
therefore, reverts to “civilian” status.
This is only half the picture. The mitzvah of terumas hadeshen is followed
immediately in the text by the companion mitzvah – removing the bulk of the
ashes from atop the altar, and taking them entirely out of the camp. In
effect, all traces of the previous day’s avodah are carted off. Here the
Torah conveys a very different – almost competing – message. We cannot rest
on the laurels of the past – neither our own, or anyone else’s. Thinking
about what already has been accomplished can be a deal breaker for any new
undertaking, sapping it of passion, drive and enthusiasm. We must approach
each day’s service with fresh purpose and vigor. Terumas hadeshen teaches us
about continuity; hotza’as hadeshen invigorates us each day. It instructs us
to approach each day of our lives as if it were our first in stepping
forward to serve Hashem.
Between these two mitzvos, we find balance. We take guidance from the past,
and comfort in being part of something bigger than ourselves. Buoyed by that
continuity, we then see ourselves as indispensible and crucial agents in
accomplishing what has to be done for the future.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Vayikra 6:3-4
2. Thus, the holiest part of a korban – the blood – drained from the altar
to a place on the Temple Mount slope to which came farmers, who carted it
off and turned it into fertilizer. This contrasts pointedly with the way
other faiths dealt with the “leftovers” after some ritual sanctification.
For hundreds of years, a Jew even looking at these leftovers forfeited his
life, and provoked a pogrom.