Recently, when I was finishing up the dishes after dinner, my son Jeremy came to me and said, “Mom, we have a surprise for you.” I followed him to his room wondering what the surprise was. Had the kids drawn me a picture or built a tall LEGO tower? He opened the door to his room to show me that my two-year old daughter had taken all the clothes from her bureau and spread them across the floor. Oy Vey!
I am continually amazed by how untidy children are. My friend, Rabbi Sherre Hirsch put it well: “Being born is messy, and it only gets worse from there.” I remember on one of my first days back to work after maternity leave, I got all dressed in my suit in the morning. Then my infant son promptly spit up all over me. At that moment, I knew I was in a whole new ballgame.
At such times, I often think of a teaching from this week’s Torah portion. The parasha is called Tzav (which means command), as it contains the instructions to the priests on how to offer sacrifices. The directions begin with the burnt offering which remains on the altar all night. God explained that the first thing the priest should do each morning is put on ordinary clothes, clear out the ashes from the altar and carry them outside the camp.
I read once that Julia Roberts cleans her own home. Even though she can obviously afford help, she instead does the cleaning herself. She was quoted as saying simply: ‘If you mess it up, you should clean it up.’ I imagine that this practice has helped keep the actress grounded in an environment where fame and fortune can easily degrade one’s soul.
Cleaning the ashes each morning must have had a similar affect on the priest. He couldn’t become arrogant and think himself above this mundane task. Rabbi Simhah Bunem (of eighteenth century Poland) noted that this habit would keep the priest connected to ordinary people who likewise do such tasks.
In our day, the messier jobs (like garbage collecting or child-rearing) tend to be less well paid and respected than neater office jobs. People with financial means often delegate unpleasant tasks to housekeepers or personal assistants. In this context, the Torah sends the opposite message.
This week, Jews around the world gear up for the arduous task of cleaning our homes for Passover. The preparation often feels like coming down with a collective case of Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder — as every nook and cranny of the house is searched for any trace of chametz (bread, grain or leavened product).
Yet, this week’s Torah portion reminds us that there’s a deeper, spiritual lesson to be found in all the scrubbing. If you want to be free, you have to get your hands dirty.
On that note, I better go do the laundry.
Rabbi Ilana Grinblat teaches rabbinic literature at the American Jewish University’s Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their two young children.