And G-d spoke to Moses saying: Command Aaron and his sons, saying: this is the law of the olah, the olah that burns on the alter all night until morning. And the Priest will don his linen garments and pants and take up the ashes that the fire left on the altar from the olah and he will put them next to the altar. And he will then change his clothes and take the ashes outside of the encampment to a pure place.
This text is found among a series of descriptions of the various sacrifices offered on the altar: sin offerings, guilt offerings, and then the olah ("burnt offering"). Why is the olah suddenly interrupted with the description of terumat hadeshen — the taking out of the ashes?
For starters, this is not a simple description but rather a proscription. The taking out of the ashes from the altar was a G-d-given commandment no different from the commandment to bring the sacrifice in the first place, and it was viewed as such by the priests.
We learn in the midrash that the priests fought over the opportunity to perform this mitzvah. There hardly seems to be a more inconsequential mitzvah than terumat hadeshen. After all, it's just a clean up of the leftovers from the burnt sacrifices — taking out the trash after the real work is complete. Yet the priests performed this mitzvah with the same zeal with which they brought the sacrifices. Why?
Chazal taught in Pirkei Avot that a Jew should be as careful in the performance of a seemingly minor mizvah as he is in the observance of an important one. The reason? We do not know the rewards of the mitzvot. Perhaps the seemingly minor mitzvah is greatly rewarded while the seemingly major mitzvah is not. One could even make the argument that the more mundane the mitzvah the greater its reward as the performance of such a mitzvah serves no clear purpose other than the service of G-d.
In my home (as in many homes no doubt), it has somehow become my responsibility to take out the garbage. In the early years of my marriage, I would bristle and protest when my wife would call me into the kitchen. "Can you empty the garbage?" Was it really necessary for me to get up from what I was doing just to empty the garbage? After all, she was right there, and taking out the kitchen trash requires no particular strength or skill. She is quite as capable as I. Taking the garbage become loaded with symbolism. If I took it out, I was giving in to my wife, letting her rule the house. If I stood my ground, no doubt an argument would ensue over who did more of the household tasks. After a few such arguments, I decided it wasn't worth fighting over and took out the trash when asked to do so — but the internal resentment remained.
Then last year I learned about the priests' approach to terumat hadeshen and taking out the trash came to have a whole new meaning. The priests fought for the chance to take out the trash, seeking to show their dedication and commitment to G-d by doing so with alacrity and zeal. L'havdil, I realized, I should take out the trash with zeal as an expression of my love for my wife and my commitment to our marriage.
My eagerness to empty the kitchen garbage is representative of my appreciation for all that my wife does for me. I await the opportunity with joy: it is a sacred act, an expression of love, representative of the holiness of our marriage.
For additional information on the mitzvah of terumat hadeshen, see http://www.torah.net/eng/parsha/02-25.htm.
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