Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
Shabbat Tsav/Shabbat Hagadol
March 22, 2013
Why were the kohanim the ones who had to haul out the ashes every morning? To teach those of us who live in a highly stratified society that all work is potentially holy and that no one should feel that they are too good to do “ordinary” work.
Who Cleans Up in Your House?
This week’s Torah portion begins with a rather strange law. Leviticus 6:3-4 says “The kohen, the priest, shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar, and place them beside the altar. Then he shall take off his vestments and put on other vestments and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.” So let me ask you two questions.
First, do we really need to be told that the ashes were carried off the altar every day? Of course they were. Otherwise they would have piled up on the altar until there was no room left in which to perform the sacrifices. Why does our Torah, which does not usually waste words, have to give us this janitorial information?
My second question is why were the kohanim, the priests, the ones who had to carry out the ashes? After all, the kohanim were the people in charge of the worship. Why did they have to take off their sacred vestments every morning, put on other garments – maybe overalls – and take out the ashes? Wasn’t that a menial job, beneath their dignity? Couldn’t the kohanim have hired janitors to carryout the ashes every morning? Why did they have to do it themselves?
Commentators offer a lot of different guesses for why the kohanim had to carry the ashes out themselves. My answer is very simple. My guess is that it was in order to teach the kohanim to have respect for the work which ordinary people do. If your job placed you in the mishkan, the tabernacle, and you did sacred work all day, it would be easy to forget how ordinary people live. It would be easy to feel that you are very special, higher and holier than the rest of amcha, the community. Therefore, before beginning the daily sacrifices, the law in Leviticus provided that the very first thing the kohanim had to do each and every morning was to take the ashes, which were left over from the sacrifices that burned all through the night, and carry them out of the camp.
Now, if my guess is right, that that is why the kohanim had to carry out the ashes every day, there is a lesson here for all of us. While we talk about ours being an egalitarian society, we really live in a very stratified society. Our world is divided not only between the haves and the have-nots; it is divided between those who do work which has status and those who do not.
For example, ours is a world in which some CEOs travel only by private charter plane; a world in which powerful people no longer drive to work – the company sends a car and chauffeur for them; a world in which at entrainment venues and sporting events there are corporate boxes – glassed-in, carpeted, climate-controlled – in which ushers bring the food to you; this is where the machers watch concerts and ball games. It is this kind of society where people on both sides of the social spectrum need to be reminded that ALL work is dignified, and that no one should feel that they are too good to do “ordinary” work.
Our scholar-in-residence last November was Rabbi Jeffrey Salkin. He tells the story of being in a taxi on the way to the airport to fly to another city where he was scheduled to give a talk. The taxi driver recognized Salkin and engaged him in conversation as they drove. The driver said to the rabbi, “What do you say to someone like me, Rabbi, who has not set foot in a synagogue since I was Bar Mitzvah, who is not religious?”
Rabbi Salkin replied, “We could talk about how you serve God in your work.”
“What are you talking about?” said the driver. “What does my job have to do with religion?”
“Do you realize,” Rabbi Salkin asked him, “that you are one of the tissues that connects humanity?”
“Huh?” said the driver. “What are you talking about? I’m no clergyman. I’m no holy man. I just drive a taxi.”
“Is that so? Well, right now you’re taking me to the airport. Thanks to your efforts and skill, I’ll make my flight and hopefully get to my destination on time. There I will be giving a couple of lectures which may touch or even change somebody who hears me. If so, you will have helped to make the connection between me and that person happen.
“And while we’ve been driving, I overheard the conversation on your two-way radio. I heard that after you drop me off, they want you to go to a certain hospital, pick up a woman there and bring her home. That means you will be the first non-medical person this woman will encounter after her stay of God-only-knows how long in the hospital. You will be a small part of her healing process. You will be an agent that will help smooth her re-entry into normal life again.
“And then, who knows? You may go to the train station and pick up someone who is coming back from visiting a parent who is dying, or you may take someone to the house of the woman whom he is going to ask to marry him.
“So, you see, you’re a connector, a bridge-builder, whether you realize it or not. You are one of the many unnoticed people who make the world work as well as it does. That is holy work, my friend. You may not realize that it is, but your work is just as sacred as mine is any day.”
The cab driver thought about this for a little while and then replied, “Wow! I never looked at my job that way. I guess you’re right, Rabbi. Thanks.” And then he speeded up and headed for the airport.
When we hear that story, I hope we realize that there are very few, if any, jobs which are devoid of religious significance. The garbage man makes it possible for people to live clean lives and protects us from disease. The mail person keeps us connected to our family and friends and makes it possible for business people and their customers to communicate. The florist brightens our lives and enhances the pleasure of our simchas by the flowers that she sells. The newspaper delivery person makes it possible for us to know what’s going on in the world and where we can be of help. The worker who fixes the potholes in the streets keeps our travels safe, and the list goes on and on.
Friends, we live in an interdependent society in which each of us has a job which enables others to live well and, therefore, no job should ever be maligned, looked down on, or taken for granted. That’s what the kohen learned every morning when he took off his priestly raiment, put on overalls and carried out the ashes.
Rabbi Salkin offers another example of how any and every task can be sacred. Let us consider clothing. Most of us take clothing for granted, and we especially pay little attention today to the tailor. We tend to think of a tailor as someone not as educated or as talented as we are. If he were, he would have a better job and not be a tailor. Wrong. One of the people I most respect in our Jewish community is my tailor, Sherman Ray, a truly remarkable individual – wise and knowledgeable; there are very few such old-world tailors left. I don’t know what’s going to happen when people like Sherman Ray are gone.
In the Jewish tradition, tailoring is a honored profession. My grandfather, Philip Sherman, was a master tailor. Every morning, friends, when we dress, we are supposed to say a bracha, thanking God for the clothes we wear: Baruch Atah Adonai, Eloheinu Melech Ha-olam, malbish arumim, thank You Adonai, our God, Ruler of the Universe, who provides clothing for the naked. Those who manufacture, and those who sell, and those who fix clothing, are doing God’s work.
Think about how much better you feel about yourself when you put on a new dress or a new suit for the first time, especially if it fits well. It brightens your day. It makes you feel self-confident. Thanks are due to the designers and the tailors who make that happen.
Rabbi Salkin writes that those who work in the bridal gown end of the clothing business are really doing spiritual work. They are helping to fulfill the mitzvah of hachnasat kallah, of dowering the bride. And what about the salespeople who work in a “big and tall” clothing store that specializes in clothing for the overweight and oversized? (That’s where I buy my clothes.) If the sales staff are tactful and sensitive to the feelings of those customers, they are doing God’s work.
So it makes no difference. You can be a doctor or a secretary, a lawyer or a bus driver, an accountant or a ditch digger – every job brings opportunities to help God, to serve God and to better human life. The people who do those jobs are just as sacred as those who stand in the sanctuary and teach the word of God, and that’s what the kohen was reminded of every single morning when he took out the ashes.
I’ll give you a couple more examples without wanting to embarrass our hard-working Temple President, his father or brother. People who move furniture, who crate and freight a family’s possessions, its dreams and its memories – when they transport these belongings from home to home, whether they realize it or not, they are continuing the work of the Levites of old whose task it was to take apart the furniture in the mishkan, put it on wagons, transport it, and then reassemble it wherever the People of Israel moved from place to place in the wilderness.
Rabbi Salkin says that one of his high school classmate’s father was a plumber, and she felt a little bit embarrassed when she compared notes with her classmates whose fathers were teachers and accountants, physicians and attorneys; hers was a plumber. One day she told her father about her feelings, and he said something in response which she has always remembered. He said to her, “Young lady, you should understand that civilization as we know it depends upon plumbing.” And he was right.
Garbage collectors should take pride in their work and do it well, because their work is a continuation of the work that the kohanim did when they carried out the ashes in days of old.
I’ve told you stories before about Rabbi Aryeh Levin, a well-known rabbi in Jerusalem, beloved for the many good deeds he did. In fact, he was known as the “Tzaddik of Jerusalem”. His special mitzvah, the one for which he was best known, was paying attention to the people who were in prison. Prisoners don’t get a lot of attention, but Rabbi Levin would visit them regularly to give them hope and dignity.
So, one day, on the street, Rabbi Levin runs into Rabbi Schlomo Auerbach, one of the real giants of Jewish learning in Jerusalem. The two were both rushing, as it was the day before Yom Kippur. Rabbi Auerbach asked Rabbi Levin where he was going.
Rabbi Levin, to whom many people came for blessing on the day before Yom Kippur, told Rabbi Auerbach that he was on his way to the home of Dr. Miriam Munin. So Rabbi Auerbach asked him why he was going there; was she sick?
“No, no, thank God she’s well,” said Rabbi Levin. “Since she treats her patients so well and with such kindness, I’m going to her house to ask for a blessing.”
The point of this story is that whatever work we do can be sacred work if we do it sincerely and with devotion. Rabbi Levin, to whom so many came for a blessing, himself went to ask a blessing from someone else who was not a rabbi, but who did her work kindly and with devotion.
And so, I want to conclude with a lesson which I believe that the women in the congregation will agree with and with which the men should agree. This is Shabbat Hagadol, the great Sabbath before Pesach. In the hours between now and Monday night, many of us will be engaged in housecleaning, ridding our homes of chametz. It’s a tough job to get into every corner and every crevice in order to do the job right. And if we’re having company for seder, there are a myriad of other details to attend to.
Frankly, I’ve known cases where women worked so hard to clean the house and cook the festive meal, that when yontif finally arrived, they were simply too exhausted to really enjoy the seder. I think that’s a shame. Therefore, my suggestion for the coming days.
Guys, help with the cleaning, and let the women help with the leading of the seder. There is surely something wrong with a system in which women come to the seder table too exhausted to enjoy it, and where they then have to do all the dishes by themselves when the seder is over. It’s just not right.
Therefore, let no male believe or say that housecleaning and searching for chametz are below my dignity. Instead, let’s learn from the kohanim who carried out the ashes every morning, that all work is sacred if it is done with the right intention. Let men and boys be involved in housecleaning before table setting, apple peeling, nut grinding, egg shelling, and in cleaning up after the meal; and let women be involved in conducting the seder and reading from the Haggadah, so that both males and females equally can serve God.
I wish for all of you a ziessin Pesach, a very sweet Pesach, a gut yontif, and may all of us share together in the manifold tasks of getting ready for a truly joyous Passover. Amen.
— I learned this lesson from Rabbi Jack Riemer, and I practice this
lesson with Nancy, not only on Pesach but throughout the year.