Parshat Tzav 2019
When we made Aliya almost half a century ago, we spent six months in a hostel for olim in Lod, with a lot of engineers who were coming to work in Israel Aircraft Industries (because of high unemployment in the avionics industry in the US at the time). One of them, Ted, became our fried. Ted had two pet phrases, both of them decidedly old-fashioned. One was “tickled pink” to describe pleasure, and the other was “someone’s gotta do the dirty work” when someone had to do the dirty work. I thought of him when reading this week’s parsha.
The Israelites have built the mishkan, the Tabernacle, they are receiving a detailed list of sacrificial offerings (last week and this week), and the priests now have meticulous instructions about when and how to bring and fire up these offerings on the altars. But let’s get real for a moment. In addition to being the sacred site where holy acts were performed, what was the tabernacle (and later the Temple) if not a slaughterhouse? The number of animals offered up each day was substantial, and on special days it was a shuk.
The question is – who was supposed to clean up the mess? Somebody had to do the dirty work (thanks, Ted) or the tabernacle (and later the Temple) would become a stinkpot and health hazard. The blood was drained off but what about the ashes and entrails. Bones and rendered fat?
If this were some large modern company, the answer would be obvious. There would be a maintenance staff or a cleaning service hired for keeping the order (minimum wages, no fringe benefits). The contemporary parallel at that time might have been the simple Israelites. After all, it was their animals and other offerings that had to be removed. And if not them, then the Levites. They were the priests’ helpers, their lives and livelihood revolved around the Tabernacle/Temple, they certainly could have taken care of the mess.
But neither of them got the call. The first part of today’s parsha is devoted to who did the dirty work, and I’m tickled pink, as Ted would say, that it was the cohanim, the priests, including the high priest himself, who were charged with removing the remains.
The first paragraph of today’s reading spells it out. The priests (including the high priest) were to take off their official garb and don cloth clothing (the equivalent of chinos and T-shirts), shovel up the remains and take them outside the camp to a special place. We don’t know what was done to or with them after that.
When you think about it, the remains should be treated differently from the usual detritus. These were the products of a holy service devoted to God and overseen by a priest. Even though these were just the remnants, shouldn’t they be given special treatment too?
Rabbi Ben Spratt adds another dimension. The special treatment for the remains was intended as a message to the priests as well. The message is that holy service – any service – has a beginning and an end, and all parts of that service are important. Yes, you have to make sure the animals are fit, yes you have to treat them properly and follow the instructions about who what and when. Yes, you have to sprinkle the blood. But that does not end the service. The service ends when you remove the remains.
Rabbi Spratt cites Rabbeini Bachya, a biblical commentator from medieval Spain, who commented on this arrangement. Bachya says that this commandment shows that the smallest act from a place of humility is greater than the largest act from a place of arrogance.
This message has an obvious corollary. Just because you are the mediator between the people and God, sacrificing the offerings from the simple people does not put you above them. Just as they have to finish what they begin in their daily tasks, so you and leaders in general have to finish what you begin in your tasks.
The message also says that every part of the service is important. Every element has to be treated with respect, dignity and awe. Including acting as the garbage man. If we want to relate to our actions with respect, we should make sure that our actions are respectable, meaning worthy of respect.
Viewed from another angle, we are supposed to be a nation of holy priests. Priests are above the people – but they are also of the people. As a regular part of their service they have to don humble attire and take the garbage out just like the rest of us.
This is not meant to demean the priests or their office. On the contrary, it lifts them to a higher rung – if they can perform what is generally considered a menial task with the same devotion they show towards what is perceived as their higher calling, then, as Rabbeinu Bachya said, this adds even more to their holiness.
Today most people holding high positions believe in a distribution of labor: they make the mess – of all kinds – and others clean it up. That is very convenient, especially if you are on the side that generates the mess.