Seventy Faces of Torah Michael-Rosenberg

Sacred Clean-up (Parashat Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

58e536731500002900c7e20dWhen my wife and I lived in Jerusalem, we had good friends who would often invite us for Shabbat meals. This particular couple had a very specific division of labor in their marriage, because while one partner loved to cook elegant, multicourse meals, the other partner, Abe (the names have been changed to protect the innocent) had no interest in cooking. So while Cora would be in the kitchen cooking, Abe would slave away in the rest of the house, doing all of the pre-Shabbat cleaning; when Cora was done in the kitchen, Abe would move in to do the clean-up there as well.

There was only one problem with Cora and Abe’s arrangement. At dinner, as we’d eat the delicately plated hors d’oeuvres, or the masterful main course—and especially when we’d get to an inevitably addictive dessert—we would all praise Cora’s performance, while Abe’s immaculately clean floor earned no comment; no one would gush over how we’d never seen a book shelf so well-arranged and carefully dusted.

Abe finally decided that his offering deserved notice as well, so he printed out a sticker that said “Abe’s Floor” and stuck it to the floor tiles—a permanent reminder that though less obvious, his contribution to a gorgeous Shabbat dinner was just as important as Cora’s.

I find myself thinking about Abe’s floor as I read this week’s Torah reading, Parashat Tzav. In the midst of the slaughterhouse detail of this parashah, so foreign to most readers, the attentive reader finds something unexpectedly familiar: “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).

Every morning, the priests must clean up after yesterday’s mess. Burning animals all day leaves a lot of residue, and just as I must wash my dishes at the end of one day before I can make breakfast for the next, the priests must sweep up the ashes of yesterday’s sacrificial offerings before they can begin the work of today. Even for a reader completely alienated from the biblical model of animal sacrifice, this verse computes.

Yet, as the great 20th-century commentator Nehama Leibowitz points out, precisely for this reason—the instinctive sense that, yes, of course someone would have to clean up after the daily work of the priests—the Torah’s relating this detail is surprising. The Torah even phrases this act of tidying as a commandment: when the priests clean up the ashes from yesterday’s offering, they are fulfilling one of the Torah’s 613 mitzvot, or commandments. Leibowitz writes: “It is doubtful whether the Torah would devote space simply to commanding a purely natural and technical operation that is necessary, in any case, to keep the altar clean and in order…”

Leibowitz cites a number of earlier commentators who respond to the seemingly unnecessary description of cleaning up in the sacred precincts; I have been lingering on one in particular. Rabbeinu Bahya, a 13th–14th century Spanish commentator, draws our attention not only to the explicit requirement for priests to clean up the previous day’s detritus, but also to the specific requirement that they do so in their official, priestly garments (“The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body…:). Any action directed towards service of God is sacred service, and therefore demands the care and respect that the most vaunted and communally valued deed requires.

He emphasizes, though, that this requirement to wear the exalted clothes of the priest while picking up the ash serves not (only) to extol God; it also brings low the haughtiness that a priest—a socially privileged, culturally valued member of Israelite society—might otherwise feel. The Torah demands that even—especially—the most privileged must sacrifice their own honor for the sake of serving the common good.

Rabbeinu Bahya focuses on the nullification of the priest’s ego, but a corollary holds true as well: when the priests, in their priestly garment, sweep away the ash, they raise the cultural cache of this otherwise ignored and devalued act. The same priestly clothes worn while performing the most central, public acts get worn in what appears to be the drudgery of everyday life, sweeping up the previous day’s dirt the same way that you and I must in our own homes. The Torah stops to tell us that this, too, is divine service.

And so I think back to Abe’s floor. And not only that floor, but all the actions and services that people provide that go unnoticed—both the manual labor and service that people from outside my own generally white-collar world provide to me, and also the work that people in my own more familiar orbit do that goes unnoticed.

In my specific corner of the world, as a rabbi and academic, we tend to notice the brilliant, charismatic performers who can stand up in front of a room and woo a crowd, but we too often ignore the outstanding teachers who work daily to teach children and adults without the acclaim of awards and the thunderous applause; we pay highly and reward with honors those who produce many books, but we ignore the editorial, administrative and logistical support that others provide and which makes that sort of work possible. (This very blog is edited by the remarkable Rabbi Sue Fendrick; I can attest that much of the great writing you read here is thanks to her.)

It goes without saying—and yet it must be said—that this problem is tied up with our society’s deeply rooted gender assumptions. The work that goes unnoticed—whether it’s sweeping up ashes, drawing blood at a doctor’s office, or supporting scholar-performers—has historically been gendered female (check out the Twitter hashtag #thanksfortyping for some startling examples).

Indeed, while the need for someone to clean up the ashes in the Tabernacle is indeed unsurprising, as Leibowitz points out, the fact that the (male) priests are the ones who do it may be the whole point. The Torah, in making visible the otherwise unseen work of cleaning and preparing the altar, in assigning this work to the most extolled members of Israelite society, challenges us to think about the ways in which we assign and value the work that makes our own lives possible.

Micha’el Rosenberg is assistant professor of rabbinics at the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. Formerly the rabbi of the Fort Tryon Jewish Center in Washington Heights, NY, he was ordained by the Chief Rabbinate of Israel and received his PhD from the Jewish Theological Seminary of America. He is the co-author, with Rabbi Ethan Tucker, of the forthcoming book Gender Equality and Prayer in Jewish Law (Urim, 2016). (The editor of this column would like to note that, despite the author’s generous shout-out above, his writing needs virtually no “sacred clean-up”.)

Interested in a possible career in the rabbinate? Read Rabbi Dan Judson’s article “Jewish Lessons on Meaningful Work.“ Rabbi Judson teaches history, oversees the professional development program, and serves as the placement director for the Hebrew College Rabbinical School. He has a PhD in Jewish history from Brandeis University.

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