The Removal of the Ashes
Some of the more powerful and instructive memories I have come from my childhood. As I age, I continue to unearth revelations hidden in those lessons. One fragmented memory that I had this week was my childhood blanket, aptly nicknamed, Blankey.
I don’t remember exactly how long I had Blankey for, but I do know that it lasted much longer than any cheap blanket should have. I think my mom and my family wanted/tried to throw it out multiple times, but I wouldn’t let them. For them, it was a rag, a tattered piece of fabric that no longer had use. For me, it was a sacred item that was a buoy and a reminder. Although its wholeness had long departed, its purpose was still felt daily.
In a joint study between the University of Bristol and Yale University in 2007, scientists showed that when given duplicates of their toy/blanket, children almost always preferred their original item to the copy, even years past their original usage. In their words, this was “because children think the toy or blanket has a unique property or essence.”
This resonates with me. My blanket had a unique quality that I could sense. Just because it could have been thrown away by anyone else didn’t take away its meaning from me.
There is a similar dynamic at play in the parshah for this Shabbat when we read the line describing what happens with the ashes from the altar of the previous day’s service. We may have thought once they’re finished, the priest can just toss the ashes in some sort of ancient garbage receptacle. But no, the text tells us that before they’re taken away.
"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.” (Leviticus 6:3)
Before they are taken to a pure place after this verse, they are removed and placed right next to the sanctified space of the altar. Once removed, the Priest has to put on special clothing to honor that service. Rabbi Samson Rafael Hirsch, one of the great Rabbis of 19th century Germany, teaches that by keeping the ashes near the altar, we recall the significance of the previous day's service.
What I take from this teaching this year is that even though something is no longer useful in the utilitarian sense, we still treat it with honor for the role that it played. These ashes were remnants of a sacred offering. They are imbued with holiness even if their physical form is not what it once was. Who are we to judge its effectiveness for a different purpose?
We also note that even for such a menial task, we wear ritual garments and we place it with intention to make sure this process is carried out in a worthy and decorous manner. Too often, we think that just because something or someone doesn’t exhibit all the finest trappings, its worth plummets. This text argues otherwise.
While my blanket is clearly not on the same spiritual level as the ashes of the sacrifices, in my eyes, they are connected. This could apply to an item of significance for you that you’ve held on to longer than some in your family might like. Or, more importantly, we could also think about people in our world who we may overlook for they might not be as strong, able-bodied, or mentally sharp as they used to be. What we learn from these ashes, and those blanket-like items is that there is always holiness and significance from that which came before. We just need to open our eyes to it.
Shabbat Shalom and Happy Weekend!