This week we learn that the sacrificial fires must be tended and kept burning day and night. “The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it.” (Leviticus 6:5)
Rarely noted is the preceding command that the ashes must be removed almost as frequently. I am sure the job of tending the fire’s flames was more glamorous than that of removing the ash. But both are required. Both are holy. You can’t have a fire if its fuel is not continually replenished. You can’t as well build a fire in a pit that is filled with ash. The lowly work is required just as much as the lofty.
But who likes to clean? Everyone of course likes to wear clean clothes (except perhaps young boys), but who likes to do laundry? Everyone likes to eat a great dinner, or even cook a delicious meal, but who likes to do the dishes? Perhaps part of the lesson is that you have to also do the dirty work in order to gain the rewards. Passover is of course not just about the seder. It is also about the mundane tasks of cooking and cleaning. It is just as much about the preparation as it is the grand meal.
Interestingly it was the priest himself who cleaned out the ash. “The priest shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.” (Leviticus 6:4) Tending to the sacrifices and their fires involved both the glamorous and the mundane. Both were the job of one person.
The Hasidic rebbes were known for cleaning their synagogues themselves. They did not view the mundane tasks of maintaining the buildings as beneath them. They saw each and every aspect of their work as holy. Like the Zen masters who toiled over rock gardens, even sweeping the floors was a religious enterprise. Nothing was ever beneath them. Thus they taught by their example that nothing is beneath anyone.
Too often a spiritual life is seen as lofty and on high. Hence the architecture of so many synagogues and churches has towering pulpits and impressive sanctuaries. Hasidic synagogues by contrast were more often non-descript homes or even rooms. The lesson is clear. Our spiritual pursuits also involve the mundane and everyday. They must at times even involve what appears beneath us. Is it any less important, and holy, to cut up the potatoes at a soup kitchen than to serve the meal? Is it less holy to dress the Torah than to chant its words?
Again an example from recent funerals. There I am often awed by who is thanked. Thanks are frequently extended to those people who cared for the deceased in his or her last months and perhaps years. This person is rarely a family member. I often discover that these caregivers are people of deep, but quiet faith. They do things that we cannot do. It is not that this work is beneath us. Instead it is that sometimes the most intimate care requires a distance that a loved one cannot sustain. Nonetheless it seems to me that there is no holier work. It is certainly not as glamorous as the doctor who offers expert wisdom or even as lofty as the rabbi who visits with his (or her) prayers. Yet I am grateful to these people who like the priests of old who stooped to remove the ashes from the sacrificial fire pit.
Everyone always looks at the fires and exclaims “Ooh…Ah.” Too often we forget about the mundane, and even dirty, work that is required to achieve those exclamations. Too often we forget about those who stooped low to keep these fires burning.
Let us not forget about the priests who walk among us cleaning up the ashes that we cannot. Let us always remember that their work is as holy as tending to the brightly burning fires.