This week’s parsha opens with the description of a rather odd commandment. The cohen(priest) is commanded to remove the ashes from the previous day’s sacrifices that have burned on the altar all night, and carry them outside of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) to a designated place outside the camp.
Essentially, the priest is being told to take out the garbage. Of course, this is not ordinary garbage – these are the remnants of the sacrifices offered to Hashem.
Now, we may have expected this work to be done by a custodian, or the equivalent of a minimum wage worker. Yet we are told that this act was performed by the kohanim, the priests – the most privileged people in the Temple.
Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the leading figure of the 19th Century German Orthodox community wrote that we should not think the removal of ashes from the altar is simply a preparatory stage for the new day’s Temple service. Rather, it is the final conclusion of the previous day’s service.
We all understand that the need for continuity from one day to the next is crucial. However, there is a danger in placing too much emphasis on yesterday – the danger of living in the past, either positively by congratulating ourselves on what we have already accomplished — or negatively, by dwelling on past failures or mistakes. This, explains Rav Hirsch, is why there was a need for the ritual of removing the ashes from the Temple. He explains: “The thought of what has already been accomplished can be the death of that which is still to be accomplished. Woe unto him who, with smug self-complacency thinks he can rest on his laurels, on what he has already achieved, and who does not meet the task of every fresh day with full fresh devotion as if it were the first day of his life’s work!”
We must live with a delicate balance. On the one hand, our current responsibilities are in fact connected with and a continuation of the previous work; on the other hand, we cannot place too strong of an emphasis on the past and what we have already accomplished but we must greet each new day with fresh energy, vision and focus for each day is a world of its own. Each new day presents us with fresh opportunity to serve God with all our heart, soul and strength.
Time is a precious gift; the present is what we have in which to honor God and to grow in holiness. Yesterday is gone; tomorrow is not yet ours. Today is the gift in our hands, the opportunity to take what the past has taught us and be better, kinder, holier this day than we were yesterday.
This is the same balance we seek to achieve at the Pesach seder. On the one hand, we come to the seder with a very strong sense of history. We tell the story of what happened to our ancestors thousands of years ago in Egypt. Yet, our goal is not merely to tell the story and focus on the past.
As we read in the Haggadah, “In every generation a person must see him/herself as if he/she personally went out of Egypt.” We must make the story and message of Pesach relevant to us in our current situation. Furthermore, we express our desire to say before Hashem a “new song” (shirah chadashah) because the praise that we say to God once we have made the story of Pesach relevant and applicable to our lives is a brand new, unprecedented song of praise for God.
It is also why we celebrate Purim as we will this weekend. The deliverance of the Jewish people achieved by the heroism of Queen Esther is not just history. It is also a personal challenge to each of us to play our part in the ongoing deliverance of Israel from her enemies. Perhaps you and I are not in a position of authority as Esther was. But each of us has the ability and responsibility to pray as Esther requested of Mordecai and all the people in face of the existential threat posed in her day.
Today is no different. The God of Israel has kept His covenant with Israel throughout all her generations — and He will do so forever, for that is His promise. But He also asks and expects that we seek Him with all our heart and soul. This is our part, our work of service.
In Tune with Torah this week = gratitude for all that Hashem has done for us in the past coupled with dedication to live each day to its fullest, serving Him with the kind of devotion and enthusiasm that makes each day count. May we all be delivered from the tragedy of a half-lived life.