The second verse of our Torah portion states: “Command Aharon and his sons … It is the elevation offering that stays on the flame, on the altar....” In the Torah scroll the Hebrew word for flame, Mokda is written with a small letter mem in the beginning. Why is this letter smaller than the others? The first task of the day in the Temple was to remove a shovelful of ashes from the altar and place them at the side of the ramp at the base of the altar (verse 3). Miraculously these ashes would be absorbed into the ground. This was not in order to keep the altar clean, or to prevent a build up of ashes, because the next verse states a separate command to remove the excess ashes outside the confines of the Temple, and to place them in an ash heap there. What purpose is served in symbolically removing the ashes each morning, and why was it necessary for a daily miracle to absorb them into the ground? Furthermore, why is Aharon mentioned at the beginning of this portion (“Speak to Aharon and his sons...”)? Surely such a menial task as cleaning out the altar from its ashes would
be better given to a younger Cohen, and should not be the domain of the High Priest.
One of the main Yeshivot in pre-war Europe was in Kelm. It was famed not only for the level of scholarship and Torah study, but also for its character training, and emphasis on mussar. Rav Eliyahu Dessler, founder of Gateshead Yeshiva, studied there as a young boy. He writes that in the Yeshiva, menial tasks such as cleaning the floor or cleaning and lighting the lamps were never entrusted to servants; they were considered privileges, to be apportioned amongst the better students according to merit. Rabbi Dessler related that when he first came to Kelm he was considered too young to be given the much coveted task of sweeping the Yeshiva floor. His task was to go once a week to the post office to buy postage stamps for the whole Yeshiva. This philosophy that the menial tasks should be given to the betterstudents derives from our portion, that Aharon should be the one to clean out the burnt ashes from the altar.
Traditionally the world is composed of four elements, water, wind, fire and earth. The Vilna Gaon (Even Shleima 1;1) explains that these four also represent the four main character defects in a person. Water represents physical desires, wind is speech, fire is anger and pride, and earth is laziness. Just as fire always strives upwards, so too pride will cause a person to continually strive to elevate themselves, until they finally topple over. Fire also consumes every flammable thing in its path. Similarly a conceited person will tread on anyone beneath them in order to climb higher on the ladder. However, the gains made in such a fashion are illusory. The Talmud (Eruvin 13b) states, “Anyone who chases after greatness, greatness flees from him.”
Unfortunately, the greater a person is, the greater the temptation to become proud, and conceited. With the other three defects, a person can improve themselves by striving for perfection. However with pride, this is the cause of the sin, not the solution. Therefore a person in an important position needs to take drastic measures to prevent themselves falling into the trap of pride. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 7b) relates that when Rav would se a crowd escorting him to the court where he judged, he would recite the following verse to himself “Though his excellency shall mount up to the heavens, and his head reach the clouds, yet he shall perish for ever like his own dung” (Iyov 20; 6-7).
This is the reason that the Torah prefers that the cleaning of the altar be done by the High Priest. Because of his exalted position it is only too easy for him to succumb to the dangers of pride. Therefore the first action that he should perform each morning is to remove the ashes from the altar. To do so he must remove his fine garments, and change into plain clothes, so that his finery not become soiled. If all the other Cohanim see that the High Priest acts thus, they too will remember their place, and not become haughty. This is the symbolism inherent in the ashes sinking into the ground; the priests need this miraculous reminder that even the sacrifices on the altar eventually sink into the ground, and that they should not consider themselves important. This is also the reason for the small mem in the Torah. When it comes to fire, the metaphorical image of pride, one must make oneself small in order to escape its dangers.