A model of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem
A model of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem

In this week’s Torah portion, a lesson on treasuring rubbish

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Leviticus 6:1–8:36

In the quiet, predawn darkness, a man moves in the shadows. He wears fresh but simple work clothes. While the city sleeps ahead of a bustling day, he cleans up the remains of the previous night’s work and prepares to meet the day.

This scenario may resemble the setting of a modern, urban street drama. Instead, it’s a behind-the-scenes glimpse of one of the essential activities of the priests in the ancient Jerusalem Temple. Against the spectacle that was the daily sacrificial system of Judaism’s early worship system, there was also the ordinary and the quotidian: Early every morning, one of the Kohanim had the job of taking out the garbage.  

“The burnt offering shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept burning on it. The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body, and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place.(Leviticus 6:2-4)

This “ash heap” (Lev. 4:12), or “place for the ashes” (Lev. 1:16), was on the eastern side of the altar. By its third mention in the still-young Book of Vayikra, it’s clear this was no ordinary rubbish pile. These remains of the prior evening’s sacrifices smoldered all through the night, food for the “perpetual fire” that crackled and smoked reliably throughout all of the years the Temple stood. In the morning, the priest added new wood to the pyre, and the cycle of grain, oil and animal offerings began again.

While fascinating to some, Leviticus’ careful instructions for the Kohanim and raw, visceral details of the sacrifices often elicit yawns at best, and revulsion at worst. Though the institution of sacrifice was near universal in the ancient world, and many of our own prophets condemned the practice when it was not paired with concomitantly righteous behavior (as in this week’s scathing haftarah from the Book of Jeremiah), reading about “what we once did” can be a shock for newcomers and even old-timers. Despite myriad beautiful teachings about how we transformed the essence of the korbanot (the root of which means “to draw near”) into an entirely new worship paradigm of prayer, charity, study and righteous deeds after the destruction of the Temple in 70 CE, engaging with Leviticus can be a tough sell.

Yet, in that surprising, suspended moment when the priest carries the ashes away to the “pure place,” I always feel a small, familiar tingle, like the comforting screech of the garbage truck in the wee hours. But no blessed hired hand or heroic sanitation engineer took out these ashes. Rabbi Simcha Bunem of Peshischa taught that the act of hauling away the ashes “ensured that the kohein would never forget his link to the ordinary people who spend their days in mundane pursuits.” 

An intense humility emerges as the designated kohein takes his turn in the rotation, confronting the detritus of the community’s offerings and the stark reminder that even the holiest of offerings turns to dust. No matter how “wholly burnt” the sacrifice was, even the ashes had to be treated with respect and honor.

I like to imagine that clearing away the ashes was more than just a task to be endured. Maybe in those sanctified precincts, the priest took a long moment to just “be” with the remains, reflect on what had been, and gird himself against the rampant puffery and corruption that too often invaded the hallowed grounds. In that menial task, perhaps the kohein could embody the teaching of Shemaiah that would come later in Pirkei Avot (1:10), “love work, (and) hate acting as the superior.”

The great Hasidic master Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger reminds us that all of Israel were invited to be “priests” and holy people — loyal, humble subjects of the Divine, doing God’s work on Earth. Each of us is tasked as was the lone priest of the dawn, for “the commandment to remove the ashes hints that as we burn up the rubbish in our lives, we are uplifted each day, and we are given new light.” (S’fat Emet on Tzav)

We would do well to honor what we have taken from the Earth and consumed beyond use. The tender ministrations given by the kohein in plain clothes call each of us to treasure even the refuse of our lives, noting what has come before, what remains, and what can yet be repurposed for another morning.

May there be light and peace for all of God’s children, and may we merit to see the dawning of a bright, new day.

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon
Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon

Rabbi Shana Chandler Leon is rabbi of Congregation Ner Tamid in the Sunset District of San Francisco, her hometown. She is a graduate of the Academy for Jewish Religion California and a member of Rabbis Without Borders. She can be reached at [email protected].