Doing the Dirty Work

Rabbi Safra roasted the meat. Raba salted the fish.

According to the Talmud, this is what these two great sages did every Friday afternoon, in preparation for Shabbat. The Talmud regards this information as noteworthy because, although both sages certainly had others in their households who could have done this work, they insisted on doing it themselves. “It is greater to do the mitzvah with one’s own hands than to delegate it to others” was the motto by which Rabbi Safra and Raba lived. And they apparently applied this motto without discrimination. It pertained to messy or smelly mitzvot just as it did to mitzvot that did not get one’s hands and clothing dirty. A mitzvah is a mitzvah.

I remember reading journalist Ari Goldman’s book, “Finding God at Harvard.” He recounts, at one point, an oft-repeated request that his mother would make during the years of his childhood: “Do a mitzvah Ari, and take out the garbage.” Goldman notes with joy and wonder the way that we elevate the most mundane, physically dirty activity to the level of sacred act.

This important perspective on the irrelevance of esthetic pleasantness to the performance of mitzvah is critical to our religious vision. It is the premise that inspires the wonderful “Mitzvah Days,” sponsored by synagogues and federations everywhere, which include cleaning up polluted beaches and scraping graffiti off the walls of playgrounds. It is the understanding that animated some of my all-time favorite people to go out every single Saturday night on the “midnight run” — a tour of several New York City subway terminals, at which they distributed sandwiches, blankets and conversation to the city’s homeless.

I suspect that the source of this idea is to be found in the portion we read this Shabbat. It begins with the command to clear the ashes off the altar at the beginning of each Temple workday. “And the kohen shall don his linen garments and remove the ashes which the fire had produced, and he shall place them next to the altar.” After he’s done that, he is to remove them from the Temple altogether. This must have been a messy job. Yet the Torah ordains that it must specifically be done by a kohen, and by a kohen who must specifically wear white clothing, to boot. It seems an unavoidable conclusion that the Torah was here going out of it way to establish this point — that mitzvah and esthetic pleasantness having little to do with each other.

It is interesting to note that the daily clearing of the ashes became a highly prized assignment within the world of the Temple. The Mishna attests to the competition that attended the privilege of performing this task. The Torah succeeded in implanting its ethic. We should not be surprised about how strongly the Torah and Talmud make this point. After all, the world is not such a clean, sweet-smelling place. If we’re going to succeed at all in “fixing” it, we have to get dirty and understand that getting dirty is a mitzvah.

Like most counter-intuitive religious insights, this one, too, requires daily reinforcement. Let me suggest something that I intend to try, and perhaps you’d like to try, too. With a little reflection, I bet I could compose a kavannah (statement of religious purpose) that I could recite before doing the family’s laundry, or before washing the dinner dishes. Are these not tasks through which I express love for my family, and gratitude to God for having blessed me with them? Couldn’t a similar kavannah be composed for the act of changing a diaper? Surely, one could be recited before kashering the oven for Passover.

If our tradition has it right, these daily reinforcements could change the way we see the world. They could help us to see mitzvot everywhere we look. They could help us to look out each day, and to not see a world that’s a big mess, but to see a world that is waiting for a few more people to roll up their sleeves and get dirty.

Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David Judea in Los Angeles.