Holy Garbage

June 24, 2009

4 min read


Tzav (Leviticus 6-8 )

The first service each day in the Holy Temple was called trumat hadeshen, removal of the ashes. A kohen was instructed to take a pan and remove the ashes from the Altar. Hardly an exciting thing to do; it's curious why it's even considered a holy service.

The verses explain that the kohen needs to change his clothes, and then "remove the ash to the outside of the camp" (Leviticus 6:3, 4). Why does the kohen need special clothes for a potentially dirty service of removing ashes? Isn't it a little like taking out the garbage? Do you wear special clothes to take out the garbage?

Of course it's necessary to remove the old ashes before burning anything new on the Altar, but why is the removal not merely a token act? Why is it a special service?

This reminds me of something written in a kabbalistic work called "Palm Tree of Devorah" by Rabbi Moses Cordevero (1522-1570) which discusses the commandment to imitate the Almighty. The author equates changing a baby's diaper with God's benevolence when He cleans up our misdeeds.

In a line or two the kabbalist has elevated one of the more unpleasant mundane activities of life to the most sublime of mystical acts. How many parents, siblings and caretakers at this very moment are changing a stinky diaper and missing out on a spiritual experience?

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If you take out the garbage today, there are many thoughts you could think. You could try to ignore the unpleasant activity and think any thoughts you like. You could think about how it's an unpleasant job and you wish you didn't have to do it. You could think about how your roommate should do it instead of you.

Or you could think about how blessed you are to have things that cause garbage. Poor people have much less garbage. You have leftover food, bags and packaging from purchases, empty food containers like bottles, cans and jars -- all because you are wealthy enough to afford the items that stuff came in.

You could think about how removing garbage makes the house cleaner, more pleasant to live in for everyone, and more respectable.

You could think about how thankful you are that you're physically capable of taking out the garbage.

You could think about how just like the Almighty has to clean up the "garbage" of the world (i.e. our transgressions and the consequences of our transgressions), and how you are mimicking God's attribute of kindness by this act.

When you think these thoughts, you are elevating a mundane, non-holy act into a blessing. You are transforming the physical world into the spiritual world.

Now we can understand why the Torah makes such a big deal out of the removal of the leftover ashes from the altar. This act is not mundane, it is holy. Not only that, but it's an example for all of us how to transform the mundane into the holy.

Your home can be transformed into a miniature Temple. You can become like the kohen, and your trash can be like the ashes at the altar.

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When you think about it, most of our entire lives is spent doing "mundane" activities. How much time do we eat, sleep, eliminate, fill the car with gas, get dressed, get undressed, shower, etc. We spend an incredible amount of time on the mundane. Why would God design a world with so much time spent on seemingly meaningless activities? Doesn't he want us to be holy?

Some would try to be holy by searching for a cave to spend all their time in meditation and prayer. This may not be such a bad idea, but it certainly doesn't seem to be the intention of the Creator.

It's harder to be in the world and try to elevate it on its own terms. This is the challenge of life, and the design of the universe.

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Spiritual Exercise:

Pick one activity that you do on a daily or weekly basis, and try to discover some elevated thoughts you could consistently have while doing it.

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