Parshas Tzav: The Ashes Of Purim

At the start of this week’s parsha the Torah continues its discussion of the korban olah by laying down the law of trumas ha’deshen, or the removal of the ashes from the previous day’s korbanos:

Leviticus 6:3:

וְלָבַשׁ הַכֹּהֵן מִדּוֹ בַד וּמִכְנְסֵי־בַד יִלְבַּשׁ עַל־בְּשָׂרוֹ וְהֵרִים אֶת־הַדֶּשֶׁן אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכַל הָאֵשׁ אֶת־הָעֹלָה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְשָׂמוֹ אֵצֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ׃

And the priest shall put on his linen garment, and his linen breeches shall he put upon his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes whereto the fire hath consumed the burnt-offering on the altar, and he shall put them beside the altar.

At the level of Biblical law, the kohein would need to remove the ashes of previous korbanos on a daily basis. They were to add the ashes to a pile throughout the day, and then deal with the pile the next morning by removing it to a location outside the Mikdash. There are a number of things about this mitzvah of trumas ha’deshen that need addressing:

  1. Why is this a mitzvah in the first place? Surely, there were many aspects of the general upkeep of the Mikdash that were not mitzvos per se: the menorah needed to be cleaned and polished; the sand from the desert must have needed to have been swept. Yet we find that trumas ha’deshen, the removal of the ashes of prior korbanos, is specifically a mitzvah. Why?
  2. Not only is trumas ha’deshen a mitzvah, but the Torah goes out of its way to state that it is something that only a kohein can do, and only in his special clothing, a requirement synonymous with being a fundamental aspect of the avodah of the Mikdash — just like the lighting of the menorah or the bringing of korbanos in the first place. Why is this the case?
  3. The word “trumah” generally connotes the lifting up, or elevating, of something. As such, it is an odd choice for the title of this mitzvah. What are we to make of this, if anything?

Today & Yesterday

R. Shimshon Raphael Hirsch wonders why the obligation of trumas ha’deshen is to be done specifically at the beginning of the day (as opposed to at the end of the preceding day). He explains that the reason for this is that the ashes represent the past. The avodah of each and every day necessarily starts with the preceding day. It is difficult to have a historical perspective relative to our problems, but there needs to be an awareness that the world did not begin with us, nor are we the first to face the problems that we do. The trumas ha’deshen could very well have been the last thing that was performed each day in the Mikdash, but it is not — it is the first. Today’s avodah is a continuation of the work done on the previous day.

Indeed, the Purim of this year is to link back to the many Purims of the past. “In every generation they rise up against us,” as it were, in that history matters in a very real, tangible sense. Our very lives are built on all that has preceded us. We ignore Jewish history at our peril. Whilst all Yom Tov is about the commemoration of past events and occurrences, far from actually being nothing more than events of the ancient past, they are in fact immediately relevant to all of us.

The Symbol Of Ash

One cannot be blind to the symbolism and metaphor that are the ashes of the trumas ha’deshen. Ash is representative of a destructive element; it is what remains when something is burnt, when something is destroyed.

The Sfas Emes points out, though, that when something is destroyed there still remains a semblance of greatness and kedusha. The holiness and greatness of the Jewish people is not found at the heights of the korban olah, but in our reemergence from destruction in a state of the most unimaginable holiness, like a phoenix from the ashes, the trumas ha’deshen. The founding of the modern sate of Israel after the destruction of the Holocaust is but one example of this phenomena. It is the reality of Jewish history in general. We deal with ashes in a most careful and holy way.

In putting together these two ideas, the answers to our three questions become immediately clear. It is no wonder that the Torah places such great emphasis on the crucial, profound messages of the trumas ha’deshen.

“Getting Wrecked”

There is a common expression applied to an individual who is particularly drunk; it is often said that such a person is “wrecked.” Indeed, when one knocks down the levels of one’s own sanity and seichel it could well lead to a compete and utter lack of holiness. However, as chassidic literature explains, there can also be a trumas ha’deshen, a rebuilding and achievement that surpasses what was there before the destruction. When one knocks down the fake, exterior walls erected around oneself, there can emerge a holy, deep, profound core.

Will there be only ashes, or will there be a trumas ha’deshen, an uplifting and reemergence from those ashes?

It is our belief as Jews that even from all types of destruction can emerge a great holiness. When something is destroyed it can be ruined and finished for good — or, if we look close enough, we can see in those ashes a kedusha, a trumas ha’deshen.

From this simple, seemingly inconsequential mitzvah of the Mikdash emerges a most weighty message. Our very identity is built on the past. A new and exciting avodah stands and unfolds before us each and ever day, built and predicated on all that has come before it. The ashes of the past have great holiness, if only one can look close enough to see it, and to rise from them.

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