The idea of “proper avodah” (divine service) has a different connotation to whoever hears it; some will envision a doctor saving lives in a hospital, and others will picture a packed beit midrash of enthralled chavrutas (learning partners). How many will imagine someone cleaning the dishes or sweeping around the house? While equating the aforementioned activities may at first seem silly, they do, in fact, share a legitimate commonality.
Parshat Tzav discusses the details of various types of korbanot (offerings) and the service of the kohanim. Early in the parsha, it says, “The priest shall dress in his linen tunic, with linen trousers on his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar” (Vayikra 6:3).
The latter portion of that pasuk is known as the terumat hadeshen, the Kohen’s responsibility to clear the previous day’s korbanot ashes from the mizbayach (altar). Why, though, is this among the first actions the Torah lists the Kohen must perform in the Beis HaMikdash?
My rav from Yeshivat Orayta, Rav Adi Krohn, shared a powerful answer to this question. He first suggested that the idea of clearing off the ashes could be symbolic of starting one’s day or activities with a clean slate. Rav Adi ultimately deciphers that the Torah is saying that even the Kohen “taking out the garbage,” so to speak, is considered a part of his avodah; it is a valued part of his divine service in the Beis HaMikdash.
Relating to our own lives, this idea says that tedious activities we usually would not prioritize, such as cleaning our rooms or taking out the garbage, are included in our responsibilities as Torah-centric Jews.
This insight seems to connect to the fundamental idea that Rav Kook taught. He writes, “When one realizes that being totally perfect is unattainable, one can finally understand that one’s true greatness is found in the holy journey of constantly becoming just a little bit better” (Ein Aya, Berachot 2, p. 33).
Rav Kook is revealing that our essential purpose is not to arrive at the theoretical perfection we envision, rather it is to continue to climb the rungs of our own spiritual and personal development. In this model, even the activities that may seem “unworthy” of our time and attention are actually crucial to our progressive growth towards our mission: becoming better.
In Mishlei, there is a pasuk that says, “In all of your ways, know Him” (3:6). Rav Kook learns out that every activity we engage in should involve Hashem; he explains that whether we are davening, learning Torah, or engaged in small acts of kindness, we should strive to uncover Hashem’s presence in every aspect of our life (Musar Avicha 2.2).
When the Kohen begins clearing the ashes off the mizbayach, the act per se may be mundane, but it is actually quite substantial. In our own lives, we may often feel that setting the table, unloading the car, grocery shopping, or even taking out the trash can be trivial and purposeless. However, as Rav Kook explained, those acts are significant activities that contribute to our growth, our journey of becoming perfect.