Each and every morning, the first order of the day in the Holy Temple was for the kohen (priest) to remove a small portion of the ashes from the altar and place it on the floor just next to the altar. The verse in the Torah portion of Tzav states:

The kohen shall don his linen tunic, and he shall don his linen trousers on his flesh. He shall lift out the ashes into which the fire has consumed the burnt offering upon the altar, and put them down next to the altar.1

The purpose of this ritual was not merely to tidy up the ashes left over from the fire that had burned all night, for if that was the case the commandment would have been to remove more than just a symbolic amount of ash. In fact, after the priest would remove a small portion of the ashes, the other priests would place the remainder of the ashes in a large heap in the center of the altar.2

What, then, is the significance of lifting and removing the ashes? Why is it so important that it’s the first ritual performed in the Temple, the first step in the service of G‑d?

Ashes are what is left over from the previous day’s service. Yesterday, your service may have been perfect. Yesterday, you may have actualized your G‑d-given potential. Yesterday, you may have achieved all that you possibly could have achieved with your opportunities, talents and strengths.

That was yesterday.

However, if you offer the identical service today, if you do not grow spiritually. If you don’t become more loving, more compassionate, more patient, more thoughtful, more committed, then you are stuck in the past. The first step in serving G‑d each morning is the realization that the ashes that represent “the old me” must be removed, in order to clear the way for “the new me,” for the me that will actualize today’s even greater potential.

That is why each night the chassidim of the Alter Rebbe, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, the founder of the Chabad movement, would tell themselves, “Tomorrow will be totally different.” They did not say “a bit different,” they said “totally different.” They did not feel guilty for not realizing that day’s potential, because they did realize it; rather, they understood that the next day’s potential would be so much greater.

The portion of Tzav is always read in close proximity to the holiday of Passover. Indeed, the message of the ashes is the reason why remembering the exodus from Egypt is so central to Judaism.

In Hebrew, Egypt is Mitzrayim, which means “constraints.” You may be a great human being, but if today you are in the same spiritual space that you were in yesterday, you are in Egypt. The Torah therefore insists that you “remember the day you left Egypt all the days of your life.” Each morning when you wake up, remember to remove the ashes. Do not limit yourself to the person you were yesterday.

Remember the Exodus and break free.