I will tell you a secret. Each morning at 4:15am I take my dog, Frankie, for a walk.
The purpose of the walk is simple. I leave the house shortly after and don't get home til near 8:00am. The walk is so Frankie can relieve himself and so we don't have to deal with accidents in the house. Most mornings Frankie leaves major business on our walks. And it's for me to bag it and dispose of it. But now here comes the secret.
You can be sure, no one is on the streets at 4:15am. I know that if I choose to simply walk away from Frankies droppings no one will be the wiser. I wrestle with myself, do the right thing and bag it...or walk away? While no one has any idea of my early morning battle with my conscience and even a victory goes unnoticed, when I indeed pick it up and do the right thing, I give myself a pat on the back.
This week I found support for my resolve to overcome the temptation and do the right thing from a section in the Parsha of Tzav. Most of the reading deals with instructions to the Kohanim, the Priests,on how to bring the ritual offerings in the Temple. Each offerring is reviewed with it's attendant requirements. Surely for the Kohain it must have been exhilirating to officiate in the Temple and be the one to serve as medium between Israel and G-d, to enter holy places where no one else could go, to wear distinguishing fine clothes, and to conduct rituals filled with meaning and symbolism. But that's not where the Torah commences its directives to the priest. The Torah's first imperative to him is far less imperious.
The Torah begins by commanding the Kohain to each morning clean the alter from the ashes, the residue of the sacrifices of the night before, a ritual known as "T'rumat Hadeshen". A handful of the ashes he is to place by the side of the 'mizbaiyach', the alter. The rest he is to carry outside the camp and dispose of it in a clean place.
There are no janitors in the Temple, no maintanence men. The clean-up work belongs to the priests themselves. And moreover it's holy work. The Torah tells us that when the Kohain takes the ashes outside of the camp to dispose of them he must first change his clothes from the ones he wore when he served inside the Temple earlier.
The Talmud makes clear however that the change of clothes does not mean he should put on his jeans and tee. Actually he is required to continue to wear his priestly clothes when doing the 'garbage detail'. The Talmud tells us that in mentioning the change of clothes the Torah only wanted the Kohain to switch from his better quality priestly clothes to ones not quite so good, all in order that the good clothes not get dirty. But absolutely, even in taking out the Temple's excess, the kohain remains in holy uniform. This is holy work.
In reflecting on the lessons from this week's parsha the Jerusalem Talmud remarks "These laws are meant to teach us that there is no room for personal grandiosity in the palace of the king". And so the Kohain, the most esteemed member of the Jewish community, is expected to take out the residue from the Temple. It is part of his sacred work, even as much as is the offerring of the daily incense.
Shabbat Ha'gadol, the Sabbath which precedes Pesach, in most years falls when we read this week's parsha of Tzav. I think there is a meaningful connection between the content of the parsha and the context of our lives. We are all pre-occupied with readying for Passover. A big piece of making ready is the cleaning of the home and the removal of the chametz, the leavened products. At one level cleaning seems to be an instrumental good. The cleaning is only so that the house be free of forbidden products on Pesach. The chametz-free house is the goal. Cleaning is the way to get there. Those who go away for Pesach can avoid the need to clean altogether.
In that light it's no wonder the work can often feel tedious and uninspiring.
But the Torah this week gives us another perspective. The cleaning of the Temple and it's alter was a mitzvah, a holy rite, reserved for the kohain in full dress. Cleaning of the Temple and the disposing of the ashes of the 'mizbayach' was not an instrumental good. It was a sacred task, a privelege to perform. In the personal life of a Jew and his/her family the home is like the Temple. When the woman and/or man busy themselves getting rid of things that don't belong to the holiday, when they free their environs of the forbidden, they are doing a holy task in its own right. Like the Kohain in the Bait Hamikdash, in removing the 'garbage', that which does not belong, the woman/man is investing her/himself in an act of sanctification.
Those who go away miss this mitzvah! Indeed they are exempt. But they lose the privelege!
The cleaning of the home and the removal of chametz is a much a holy work as is the eating of matzah on seder night.
The act of house-cleaning when it involves readiness for Pesach belongs to everyone, as much to the most noble and learned as to the ordinary. As the Jerusalem Talmud said "there is no room for personal grandiosity in the palace of the king".
Let me go back to where we began, to me and Frankie and our early morning walk and conscience call. I have often thought that when I get to heaven and they say to me "Nu what have you done in your life worth anything that you should claim a place in life everlasting?". I will at least be able to claim all those early mornings, when no one knew the difference, that I was sensitive to the kedusha, the holiness of Jerusalem and Eretz Yisrael and I picked up Frankie's residue rather than leave it on the street. If nothing else, let my love of the Holy Land and respect for it be enough.
Enjoy your Sabbath rest oh you weary ones. Know you are doing holy work in making ready for Pesach. You are the priests of your home. The end of next week you will enjoy the clearly sacred. You will place all the ritual items for Pesach on your table, your personal mizbayach. But it is the work of this week, the work of the ready-making of the home, that is every bit as sacred.
And who knows if it is not the work of the cleaning and disposing, the work least glorified and the one so many seek to avoid, that will be the mitzvah that gets you your ticket to heaven.