Pinny Arnon

An offering of Ashes: The Ability To Change and Elevate The Past

Photo by Jacek Dylag on Unsplash

A peculiar ritual is described at the open of parshas Tzav. The priests in the Temple are commanded to begin each day by removing a portion of the ash that had accumulated on the altar from the previous day’s offerings and to place it on the ground next to the altar.

וְלָבַשׁ הַכֹּהֵן מִדּוֹ בַד וּמִכְנְסֵי־בַד יִלְבַּשׁ עַל־בְּשָׂרוֹ וְהֵרִים אֶת־הַדֶּשֶׁן אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכַל הָאֵשׁ אֶת־הָעֹלָה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְשָׂמוֹ אֵצֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ
And the kohen shall don his linen tunic, and he shall don his linen trousers on his flesh. And he shall lift out the ashes into which the fire has consumed the burnt offering upon the altar, and put them down next to the altar.
(Vayikra 6:1)

This was not a matter of cleaning the ash from the altar, for that process is described subsequently, whereby every few days, when the pile of ash on the altar had grown high, all of the ash is removed and disposed of outside the camp. The daily ritual of removing a single pan-full of the ash and placing it next to the altar serves some other purpose. It is mentioned only briefly in a single verse, but it teaches a profound and inspiring lesson.

This act, which is the beginning of the service in the Temple every single day, is named “terumat hadeshen/the offering of the ash.” Teruma is translated as “offering” or “contribution,” but its root is from “harama,” which means to lift or uplift. The verse instructs the priest to “herim es hadeshen/lift up the ash,” and through this ritual, we begin each day by elevating the ashes from the previous day. What does this mean?

Ashes are the residue that are left behind when a fire burns and elevates the majority of that which was placed on the flames. Those aspects that could be utilized to create light and warmth were consumed, and that portion which was nothing but the most base earthly matter remains after the fire has come and gone. Ash, the chassidic masters explain, represents that part of yesterday which we were unable to elevate. We did our best and lifted up as much as we could, but there are those things (within us and around us) which are so base and so devoid of vitality that we could not succeed in refining or transforming them.

Nevertheless, the “terumat hadeshen/uplifting of the ash” teaches us that we should not be either discouraged or satisfied with yesterday’s inabilities. Today, we begin by taking a pan of yesterday’s ash and offering it up to signify that we will try again and that there is value and sacredness even in our past failings. Our work is holy even if it is imperfect and even when it does not yield anything more than this dry and seemingly useless grey matter. This ash is the inevitable by-product of the fire we ignite. It is not fruitless, it is the nature of physical world we inhabit. As long as we do not become discouraged, we can utilize it to fertilize the earth (within us and around us) and precipitate future growth.

The Chassidic masters teach that there are two responses to challenge and difficulty in life. There is “atzvut/depression,” and there is “merirut/bitterness.” Atzvut is heavy and debilitating. It breeds hopelessness and collapse. Merirut, on the other hand, stimulates action and growth. It inspires one to alter course, to work harder, and to create a better outcome in the future. The majority of the ash on the altar was cleaned away every few days and deposited outside the camp. This portion of the ash represents “atzvut/depression.” But the “terumat hadeshen,” the portion of the ash that was offered and uplifted daily, this represents “merirut/bitterness,” the reaction to yesterday’s failings that inspires us to dig down deeper to access our infinite divine potential in order to make today even more sacred, productive, and successful.

Just as this ritual was the first act to be performed in the temple every day, so is this verse about the ash offering recited at the beginning of our prayers each morning in the opening of the section of karbonos. As we whisper the words, may we inaugurate every new day with the consciousness of our ability to uplift even the lowest aspects of our existence and even the most ashen challenges and shortcomings of our past.

– Derived in part from Pnei Hashem, an introduction to the deepest depths of the human experience based on the esoteric teachings of Torah.

About the Author
Pinny Arnon is an award-winning writer in the secular world who was introduced to the wellsprings of Torah as a young adult. After decades of study and frequent interaction with some of the most renowned Rabbis of the generation, Arnon has been encouraged to focus his clear and incisive writing style on the explication of the inner depths of Torah.
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