In the quarter of davening that comes before p’sukei d’zimra, one is meant to recite several passages of sacrificial law. One such passage would seem out of place. The rest of the introductory service (“korbanos”) is understandable: the first paragraph tells the kohanim to wash their feet and hands before service, the third concerns the daily korban (which is brought before and after all the others), the fourth speaks at length about the daily incense. Others passages about various offerings from the Talmud are presented afterwards. The second passage, in full below, contains the mitzvah to clear the altar from yesterday’s ashes:
To paraphrase the relevant section: this is the law of the olah [fully consumed korban]…the Kohen should wear his linen uniform, remove the ashes from the altar, and place them next to the altar. He should change into another set of clothing and take the ashes outside the camp to a pure place. A constant fire should be fueled by new logs every morning, never to be extinguished.
What’s such a big deal about cleaning the altar that HaShem makes it a lengthy mitzvah and a good chunk of tractate Tamid is dedicated to the selection for this prestigious mitzvah? Moreover, why are we saying it every morning?
I think there is more here than a simple necessity of maintenance. In this paragraph, there is very probably a step-by-step guide to starting your day right. One cannot simply wash up and throw stuff on the fire. Not only would it be messy and disrespectful, it would be an unhealthy way to approach the Divine. Our activities in realization of the Infinite should be systematic and precise like the universe we work within.
The first thing you do to continue yesterday’s experience (which has already been consumed) is to place it just slightly out of view, next to your mental workspace (your altar). The next step is to improve your way of approaching the experience (your clothes), to change your expression of the past to something higher, something you could not have accomplished in the moment. It is then that memory and circumstances can be transported to a healthy place (one of purity), where they will be untouched, eventually to be dissolved into the world and its history. Having now moved above the labor, challenge and accomplishment of yesteryear, you can begin to burn entirely new elements (logs), whole and freshly cut from the wilderness beyond. With all this renewal and processing, the fire that catalyzes and purifies is unchanged. It is an eternal fire, one that has burnt since the inauguration of Divine service and will continue into the endless future. This fire both descends from the vastness above and is lifted from human effort below. In fact, the name of the mitzvah is “t’rumas ha’deshen”, which is literally “lifting the ashes” (additionally, “deshen” can mean “luxury” or “indulgence”). Every morning, as the world is recreated, we are recreated, and our ashes ascend to be the treasure they always were.
Our cosmic art as Jews, indeed, our revelation, is a science of integration. The present much be a positive, productive nexus to cause the past to effloresce into the future. This is how we begin tefillah. This is how we dream into reality.