Have you ever argued with your brothers or sisters over who has the “privilege” of clearing the dirty dishes from the dinner table? Or how about who will be “lucky” enough to take out the garbage? Or who will have the “opportunity” to clean up the messy mess in the backyard?
Well, believe it or not, the Kohanim in the Mishkan and Beis HaMikdash really and truly considered Terumas HaDeshen, cleaning the ashes from the Mizbei’ach, to be a great Mitzvah and privilege!
Since there were so many Kohanim on duty who wanted to clean the ashes, it was quite challenging to decide who would be the one who would get to do this Mitzvah.
So, during the times of the Beis HaMikdash, the Rabbis established a new rule – “first come, first served” – whichever Kohen showed up earliest in the morning was chosen for this Mitzvah.
But what happened when many Kohanim arrived at the same time? Due to their great excitement this happened quite often.
Finally, someone came up with a plan – A GRAND RACE!
Yes! “On your mark… get set… GO!”
The Kohanim would race up the ramp of the Mizbei’ach – a distance of 32 Amos. That’s around two thirds of the distance between home plate and first base on a major league baseball diamond.
Whoever reached the Mizbei’ach first would be the winner.
This plan worked out well, until one day… During the race up the Mizbei’ach, one of the Kohanim was so determined to win, that just before he reached the top of the Mizbei’ach, he pushed the other Kohen off the ramp. OUCH! KERPLUNK! Down came the Kohen with a broken foot!
Now that this method was getting dangerous, it was time for a new and improved plan – A Grand Lottery!
Here’s how it worked:
The Kohanim stood in a circle, and each Kohen had the option whether to lift up one or two fingers. The Kohen in charge, a.k.a. the Memunah, picked a specific number – for example, 60. Then he counted the fingers of the Kohanim in the circle –1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, etc., etc., etc. – and kept counting 24, 25, 26, etc. etc. etc. – until he reached his chosen number.
“It’s number 60! You won!” he would exclaim, and the appointed Kohen would happily run off to clean the ashes from the Mizbei’ach.
Remember back in Parshas Ki Sisa when HaShem commanded to count Bnei Yisrael using a half Shekel? Counting Jews was prohibited.
Here too, the Rabbis didn’t want to count the actual Kohanim, rather they counted fingers. After all, there is no Jewish law against counting fingers.
Why would the Kohanim be so excited about this Mitzvah, that they would even fight over it?
Well, first of all, these were no ordinary ashes – they were the remnants of the holy sacrifices that were accepted by HaShem.
Also, the Kohanim realized that this must be a special task, otherwise HaShem would not have commanded them to wear their holy garments while taking away the dirty ashes.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman, the first Chabad Rebbe, wrote, “I consider whatever HaShem tells us to do a privilege – even if He commands us to chop wood!”
A great German rabbi, Rabbi Yisrael Isserlin (1390-1460) wrote a very important work of Jewish law. In fact, the author of the classic Shulchan Aruch, Code of Jewish Law, Rabbi Yosef Karo, tells us that he used this book as a basis for many of his rulings.
If you didn’t know the name of his Sefer, then you’ll never guess it. Believe it or not, he called it Terumas HaDeshen, translated, “Lifting the Ashes.”!
Well, Terumas HaDeshen was composed of questions and answers he wrote about Jewish law. For example, whether or not people should avoid eating sugar on Pesach, out of fear that it may contain some wheat (which is Chametz). Altogether, there were 354 responses, and that’s the numerical value of דשן (Deshen) is 354.
Is that it? Just because Deshen equals 354? Is there no other reason for this odd title?
Consider this: There are 354 days of the Jewish year. Maybe he could have given it a title like “Answers of the Year” or something like that. Instead, the great Rabbi decided on Terumas HaDeshen – “Lifting the Ashes!” It’s a mystery!
Well, here at Shazak we put on our detective hats to try to solve this mysterious mystery (most mysteries are mysterious):
When people have important questions that affect their lives, they sometimes feel like ashes, low down, drab, and useless. Perhaps that’s what Rabbi Yisrael accomplished by answering their Torah questions, helping them out of their “sad state of ashes” – a sort of Terumas HaDeshen – “Lifting the Ashes.”
Disclaimer: Please note that this Shazak answer is only a guess. But that’s what HaShem wants us to do: to work our hardest to try to understand the mysteries of His Torah, even if it’s only a guess.