One of the most undervalued Jewish virtues is that of zerizut. Often translated as zeal or enthusiasm, zerizut colors much of Jewish practice. Our goal, says our tradition, is to be excited about doing holy work. This is why Abraham got up at the crack of dawn when God commanded him to take his son Isaac to Mount Moriah to offer him as a sacrifice to God. That is also why a brit milah always happens in the morning. Ardor and passion are the hallmarks of living a Jewish life. Our task it to wake up each day with purpose, not glide through life reacting to the situations around us. Zerizut demands that nothing we do in our Jewish lives should be done begrudgingly.
Yet, often the exact things that need our zeal are in fact the least meaningful or prestigious. It’s easy to get excited about the big moments in our lives (weddings, a big presentation at work, a child’s birth). However, it’s much harder to face the everyday minutiae with enthusiasm. Religiously, how do we greet the daily recitation of the Shema with the same spirit as we do the once-a-year sounding of the Shofar? Personally, how can we face doing the dishes or taking out the trash with the same spirit as we do everything else?
In a way, our tradition has an answer for this. There is a precept, Tadir VeSheino Tadir, Tadir Kodem; the more frequent of the two mitzvot takes precedence. Therefore if you have a holiday practice and a weekly Shabbat practice, you do the weekly practice first since you should give honor to the everyday. Be excited about the mundane and it will come to feel sacred. However, while this precept creates an order of importance, it may not engender the spirit. If we live our lives by doing the menial first it doesn’t mean we will greet the task with excitement.
To combat this, our ancestors tried another tact. There are few things more dreaded than taking out the trash. Yet, this task, called Terumat Hadeshen, in Hebrew, was vitally important. Our Torah portion begins with a call for us to remove the ashes of the last day’s offerings:
The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments and put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place (Lev 6:3-4).
If each act of our religious and secular lives should be met with zerizut, how might young priests learn to appreciate this simple act? This is an act that Rashi reminds us is dirty and demeaning, so much so that the priest needs to change his clothes first before engaging in it. As he writes, “it is a matter of decency so that he should not, through removing the ashes, soil the garments in which he has regularly to minister at the altar; in the clothes he wore when he boiled the pot for his master (a menial task) he should not pour out a glass of wine for him (an honorable office). On this account it states: And he shall put on other garments — inferior to those in which he ministers at the altar”
Yet, the work needed to get done and with zeal. Therefore, our rabbis understood that sometimes to get excited for something small, the task must imbued with meaning above and beyond its own inherent value. If sweeping dust doesn’t make people jump out of bed, perhaps something else would?
Our Mishnah reads:
Originally whosoever desired to remove [the ashes from] the altar did so. If they were many, they would run and mount the ramp [of the altar] and he that came first within four cubits obtained the privilege. If two were even, the officer would say to them [all:] raise the finger! And how many did they put forth? One or two but one did not put forth the thumb in the temple. (Mishnah Yoma 2:1)
In essence, choosing the sweeper of the ashes became a game. If you could make it to the top first you would get the “honor.” The ashes became less about grime and dirt and more about competition, glory, distinction, and praise. Sadly this ritual dance only continued for a short while. The Mishnah continues:
It once happened that two were even as they ran to mount the ramp. One of them pushed his fellow who fell and broke his leg. When the court saw that they incurred danger, they ordained that the altar be cleared only by lot.
However, by the time the task of removing the ashes became by lottery it was already popular. People hoped for that job; they clamored for the opportunity.
The message of the ashes is simple. If a goal of living is to find zerizut with the mundane alongside the holy, the small with the large, the everyday with the momentous, then sometimes you have to find other ways to breed passion. Whether it’s the small things in Judaism, the daily prayers and practices that make up most of Jewish time, or personally, the minor tasks around the house or workplace that serve as glue for productive families and careers, training ourselves to greet these things with zerizut adds meaning and purpose to the whole of our being.