In the ongoing effort to convey a little bit of the Holiness we once had and hope to have again, I want to cover Terumas Hadeshen, Ash Removal.
When I was a Yeshiva Bochur in Yeshivas Ner Yisrael in Baltimore, something happened one Friday night that I have shared in shul many times. I want to share the story in writing, as part of the #3Weeks project.
Most Friday nights, the Rabbis in the Yeshiva invited the students in their main shiur to come to their homes for refreshments, soft drinks, singing, and Divrei Torah. One such Friday night in the late spring, after the Shabbos meal was over in the Yeshiva Dining Hall, I took a stroll around the campus, and arrived at the apartment building where my rebbe, Rabbi Tzvi Berkowitz, lived. I listened outside the door of his apartment, and could hear that the other students hadn’t arrived yet. It was just his family in there. I stepped away from the door and walked towards the front entrance of the building, to enjoy the nice weather just outside, before deciding where to go next until the Oneg would begin.
Not a few minutes later, Rav Tzvi walked out of his apartment, holding a large garbage bag in each hand, evidently on his way to the dumpster outside his building. When I saw him, I said “Good Shabbos” and offered to take the bags from him and take them to the dumpster for him.
He paused. I remember that. Then he said “Thank you” and I stretched my hands out to relieve him of the bags. He said “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you for performing the Mitzvah of Terumas Hadeshen.” That memory has really stuck. It happened over twenty years ago. But that single line was my key to understand all of Seder Kodoshim and the entire philosophy and premise of Korbanos.
What was Terumas Hadeshen? It was the mitzvah to remove at least a shovelful of ash from the top of the Mizbei’ach (altar) every morning, before the morning service in the Beis Hamikdash. On one level, this seems like a purely practical need. You’ve got to clear the ash before you use the oven again.
But the Torah makes a bigger deal of it. It’s not just a practical thing to do. It’s a Mitzvah.
And not only is it a Mitzvah, it was the most coveted Mitzvah of the day in the Beis Hamikdash. The Gemara relates that the Cohanim (Priests) who had the shift on any given day would hold a lottery of sorts every morning to divvy up the tasks of the day. And Terumas Hadeshen was the first act of the day, and because of that, the most precious in a way. The reason a lottery was done was because the earlier method to determine who got the job was a race up the ramp of the altar, an event that led to someone getting shoved and his arm broken! This wasn’t something the janitorial staff took care of in the middle of the night, the way many large institutions take care of cleaning and maintenance.
This was Avodas Hashem. The lesson is self-evident. The cleaning up after a Mitzvah and before the next Mitzvah is PART of the Mitzvah itself, and possesses a Kedusha (Holiness) all its own.
Taking out the trash after a Shabbos Seuda is the Terumas Hadeshen of Kedushas Shabbos.