Sacred Chores

Making the bed, emptying the dishwasher, sweeping the floor, taking out the trash – daily chores around our homes, done out of necessity, often mindlessly and probably not joyfully.  But, what if we thought of our chores as holy work?

“The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; 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.  He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place.” (Leviticus 6:3-4)

For the priest, the Kohen, the morning began the same each day – cleaning up and taking out the trash, the very first thing to do each morning. Our text additionally implies that it is the same priest that clears the ashes and then removes them to outside the camp, changing clothes for the different tasks.  It seems that it certainly would have been easier to have a different priest take out the ashes instead of the clothing change.  Yet, the fact that the same Kohen performed both manners of service emphasizes a general lesson in a 6th century midrash that “One is not to weigh the relative importance of commandments — all are equal.” [Tanhuma, Eikev 2]. In the Temple, tending to the sacrifices and their fires involved both the glamorous and the mundane. Both were the job of one person.

There was no glory, no drama in this ritual. It just had to be done. The satisfaction is in the doer knowing that it was done.  It is the clearing away of the trash: not ignoring it, not shoving it aside. Moreover, the task is treated with dignity and ritual: there were specific garments to be worn, and the ashes were to be placed specifically outside the camp, not merely piled up off to the side.  The new day was greeted only after the clearing away of the ashes.

Over the ages, much has been written about this ritual.  Rashi explains that a servant must not wear the same clothes to pour the wine for the master as would be worn for cooking.  That is, there is ritual importance in dressing for the part, both functionally and spiritually.  Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, an influential 19th Century German orthodox rabbi, explains that ashes do not allow fresh fire to be sustained. We know this to be true, that a fire pit full of ashes will only smother the fires. If we imagine that the ashes are events past, we must on the one hand remember what has past and retire it to the background with dignity, and yet clear it away to allow the unfolding of the present. Rabbi Bahya Ibn Pakuda, an 11th century philosopher and teacher of Jewish ethics, wrote the following in Duties of the Heart: “This clearing of the ashes is in order to humble oneself and remove the haughtiness from one’s heart.” Personal growth requires us to approach life with an attitude of humility. With that, even more so the lowly work is required just as much as the lofty to keep us honest and in touch with the world around us.  We are not only required to perform the elevated and seemingly spiritual tasks, but rather to understand all chores are sacred.

Ultimately, it comes down to what is in our hearts.  No one came out to see the Kohen do this.  There was no fanfare, no onlookers, and no thanks.  An invisible ritual experienced only by the do-er, known about in God’s presence.  I note this more this year, in a leap year when we read this parsha just before Purim – the very name ‘Esther’ coming from the Hebrew root s-t-r, meaning secret or hidden.  It is Esther’s hiddenness and humility that ultimately bring redemption to the Jewish people.

Ashes are merely remnants – neither good nor bad.  Living mindfully involves accepting that all is fleeting, that all experiences arise and pass.  We must remove the ashes of yesterday, whether remnants of joy or sadness, they are still only remnants; treat them all with dignity and grace, recognize them as the wispy and lustrous flecks of yesterday that must be then put aside to move into today.

What are the ashes you need to remove today? For me, I pray to be able to embrace each task of my day as a sacred chore, to keep me humble and grateful.

[Tzav 2014]

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