By Rav Alex Israel
firstname.lastname@example.org ; www.Thinkingtorah.blogspot.com
5767/ Shabbat Hagadol
Terumat Hadeshen: Out with the Bad.
The opening Mitzva of this parasha has always fascinated me. It is the Mitzva of Terumat Hadeshen. To cut a long story short, the Mitzva is a Temple ritual in which a small volume of ash is removed every morning from the altar, the Mizbeach. The Ash is then placed at the side of the Mizbeach. This ash is then disposed of outside the camp.
What is the logic behind this symbolic ritual?
But before we approach that question, we should read the opening passage of the Parasha (Vayikra 6:1-5) in its entirety, for it gives this Mitzva a wider context; It does not simply talk about the Terumat Hadeshen. The Torah would seems to focus primarily upon the "fire of the Altar."
"The fire on the Altar must burn upon it, you may not extinguish it; and the Kohein shall burn wood upon it every morning, and set the Olah upon it, and the fats of the Shelamim. Fire must burn upon it continually; it may not be extinguished!"
The verses are quite emphatic. Two mitzvot are stressed here:
1. The fire must be continuous.
2. The Priests must keep it going by supplying the altar with wood.
Now one fascinating thing here is the fact that the heading here is "Zot Torat HaOlah." Despite the fact that the Olah is mentioned here, it has little to do with the Olah and is more connected to the reality of the Altar!
So what is really happening here? What is the connection between the Olah and the ashes? (And between the ashes and the "eternal," ongoing state of the fire upon the altar?)
It would seem that I am in a rather Pesach-focussed state of mind, and hence the notion of the deliberate and exacting removal of the ash from the Mizbeach reminded me of our action of removing Chametz. Are we removing the "waste," purging the corruption from a place of holiness?
Is there a connection?
The Sefat Emet develops a fascinating symbolic reading here. He quotes from the Midrash Tanchuma: "The Olah is brought (to atone for) the thoughts and musings of the heart." The mind is at the centre here. (The Sefer Hachinuch follows a similar direction too!) And so what is meant here?
The Sefat Emet offers two lessons:
1. The need to constantly "feed" the fire of our mind and spirit:
"the Kohein shall burn wood upon it every morning: ...We must seek out, each morning, new methods and ideas in order to clarify truth - THAT is the wood (to be added to the fire) each morning... Rashi states that even though fire may descend from heaven, nonetheless there is a command that fire be brought from a regular source (by human initiative.) For in truth in the heart of every Jew, one may find a source of fire, in the dimension of Torah that exists within the Jewish soul, however, in order that that small source, that focal point, might spread throughout the body, one needs methods, techniques, strategies. In addition, one needs genuine desire to annul all other aims in life let alone God's Will." (5637)
So here the Sefat Emet talks about the need for constant renewal, rekindling of our soul's energies. Moreover, whereas we do receive a certain spiritual sensitivity from God, unless we make a daily effort, the "Eternal Flame" of our soul is in danger of extinguishing!
Which brings me to the Sefat Emet's second point:
2. Purging Evil
The Sefat Emet notes a certain duality in the act of Terumat Hadeshen, a sense that two poles meet here. On the one hand, the Terumat Hadeshen is simply ash, waste... it is taken outside the camp and disposed of. It would appear to be a sample of all the ash of the Temple, all that must be burnt, with the negative symbolism of disposal of toxic fallout - undesirable ash. It has a negative reverberation. But on second thought, the fact that Terumat Hadeshen takes place in the morning makes it the FIRST act of Avoda - worship - of the day. Does that count for anything. It is called "Teruma" which has the etymology of R"M indicating raising, lifting, elevating. Moreover, it is disposed of in a Makom Tahor - a pure place! It would appear to be genuinely positive!
What is the secret of this ambivalence?
The Sefat Emet notes that the Terumat Hadeshen comes at the end of the night, during which all the previous day's sacrifices have burnt throughout the night. Now, after the burning comes a "raising."
"The Mitzva of raising the ash is because in accordance with the burning of the extraneous, the waste, the superfluous; One then discovers the holiness of Man." (5636)
"The Olah comes (to atone) for the thoughts of the mind; as the Zohar says: 'That is the Olah: the bad thoughts of a person that are burned on the Altar." This refers to the burning of the sin offering! However, in the aftermath of the burning of the "yeast" (the evil inclination) one needs to raise the ash, because every descent is there to precipitate an ascent. Everything has a place in God's creation, as they say: "He (God) creates darkness", and so by burning the evil, one reaches the good ... and hence the raising of the ash is the ultimate purpose of the Sacrifice." (5635)
The second principle of the Sefat Emet is that we need regularly to purge, to purify ourselves by a cathartic process of removal of the bad that we have within us. Indeed, this process is hard (and takes place at "night") but the aim is to arrive in the morning at a point in which we may be raised and may ascend to the Almighty. Sometimes we must recognise that we do contain evil that must be burnt, to allow our goodness to shine. After the cathartic process of the fire, we may approach God.
On Pesach too, we burn the Chametz that has been "left" unguarded, unrestrained, to rise. And we "guard" the Matzot, a symbol of God in our lives. After we burn and remove all leaven, we are ready to usher in the night of our Redemption.
 See the Mishna in Tamid 1:2-4 for details.
 In fulfilment, of this verse, along with the morning Korban Tamid – which is an Olah – a massive fire was created, and in the afternoon two extra pieces of wood were added to the fire of the Mizbeach. See Rambam Hilchot Temidim Umasafim ch.2 and Tamid ch.2