Live for the Future; Remember the Past
Thousands of years ago, when the Temple stood in Jerusalem, the first activity done every morning was the separation of a scoopful of ashes from the altar. If you had to assign clothing to the cleric whose job it was to remove those ashes, what would you have had him wear? Perhaps overalls or work clothes but there is no way you would have had him wear formal priestly clothing-but that is what he wore.
And the Kohen will put on his linen garment and linen pants on his skin and take up the ashes…(6:3)
It makes sense to begin each day with a cleanup of yesterday’s residue, that way the altar will be ready for the coming day’s sacrifices. However, the Torah is not a guide for the proper maintenance of religious buildings and would not waste ink discussing such a mundane principle. Furthermore, separating the ash does nothing to prepare the altar for the next round of sacrifices; the next verse talks about the full-scale removal of the ashes so that the altar would be clean and prepared for the coming day’s sacrifices.
Clearly, the laws regarding the Trumas Hadeshen (“taking up the ashes”) cannot be viewed as part of the general cleanup duties of the Temple. If that was the case, we would expect that anyone could perform it-but that’s not the case. Only a Kohen can do it AND he must wear his priestly garments when doing so and then he must place that small amount of ash at a designated place next to the altar. Most people keep their trash in receptacles or at least out of sight but these ashes were left in a prominent position on the east side, i.e. facing the people, rather than off to the sides.
Rav Shimshon Rafael Hirsch (Germany,1808-1888) sees the peculiar characteristics of this mitzvah as a sign that it is not at all a preparation for the service of the new day, rather, a conscious supplement to the service of the preceding day. The fact that the ashes are placed next to the altar, the symbol of service and connection to G-d, sends a daily reminder that declares that nothing new will be done today. All that you will do here is a continuation of what has been in the past. It should be done with new enthusiasm but you need not reinvent the wheel.
Today brings no new mission, it has only to carry out, ever afresh, the mission that yesterday too was to accomplish. The very last Jewish grandchild stands there, before G-d, with the same mission of life that his first ancestors bore, and every day adds to all its predecessors in the while passing of the centuries, his contribution to the solution of the task given to all generations of the House o Israel. The Jewish ‘Today’ has to take its mission from the hand of its ‘Yesterday.’ (Hirsch Pentateuch, 6:3)
These sentences should be the beacon that guides every Jewish community. There are various ways of expressing yourself as a Jew but however you choose to do it must be as part of a course charted since antiquity. Every Jewish grandchild is supposed to realize that (s)he stands before G-d with the same mission in life that his or her ancestors bore. We do not need to discover anew what G-d wants from us nor do we need to shoulder the responsibility for solving all problems in a vacuum. Each person’s contribution builds on those of who preceded him or her and have come before in a long and rich past. The little mound of ash testifies to the continuity of yesterday with the service of today.
But the message is still incomplete. This mitzvah (Trumas 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. Essentially, all traces of the previous day’s service are carted off. Here the Torah conveys a very different – seemingly competing – message. We cannot rest on the laurels of the past – not our own or anyone else’s. Thinking about what already has been accomplished has been the ruination of many a business and charitable organization because when people are enamored by past accomplishments, they see no need to innovate and continue to make the organization relevant. This type of thinking then drains the passion, drive and enthusiasm that were the hallmarks of the company or organization when it was founded. Not long ago, two companies representing two different industries, had by far the greatest market share in their respective industry. Both Kodak and aol.comwere so ahead of everyone else that it was impossible to imagine that the former would one day declare bankruptcy and the latter would become an irrelevant player in a field they once dominated. Kodak failed to embrace the digital age and consequently became irrelevant; aol.com did not keep up with technology and slacked in customer service and they were dwarfed by companies using and developing innovative online technology.
Being a Jew means understanding that grandchildren have the same mission of their grandparents yet it must be approached with fresh purpose and drive. The new generation cannot simply dispose of the past and attempt to recreate the basic tenets of Judaism. This has been tried many times over the centuries but has never been successful in maintaining Jewish continuity. It might work for a generation or two but then it goes the way of Kodak and aol.com.
Each day in the Temple, two mitzvos were symbolic demonstrations of how to live as a Jew and pass it on to our children. Trumas Hadeshen, the small pile of ashes prominently placed next to the altar in public sight, provided instruction in continuity and Ho-tzas Hadeshen, the full removal of the rest of the ashes to an area distanced outside the Temple environs, sent a message not to remain complacent with the past; we had to distance ourselves from it.
We find balance between these two mitzvos. 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 indispensable and crucial agents in accomplishing what must be done for the future.
Every year this Parsha, Torah portion, is the one that precedes Passover; the message above directly relates to it. We revere the past; parents and grandparents tell the story at the Seder, a night of education and ritual that has lasted for thousands of years. However, if we just rely on a yearly time honored tradition but don’t actively seek ways to engage ourselves and the next generation on a regular basis, making it relevant for our ourselves, our families, and our world outlook, we are in danger of going the route of organizations and civilizations who forget where they came from and therefore neglected to think about where they were going.
Passover’s message is freedom. A person’s life is a composite of the choices (s)he made. No matter how old one is, no matter how many bad choices were made in the past, a person is free as long as (s)he makes choices. May we all realize and utilize our freedom this Passover by making choices that lead to a productive and emotionally stable and happy life.
(Sources: Hirsch Chumash, Leviticus 6:3-4; Memory and Innovation by Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein from The Timeless Rav Hirsch)