Let’s start with some facts:

Each day in the Temple, sacrifices were offered on a stone altar. The altar had several stations with wooden pyres, upon which a variety of sacrifices were offered.

As could be imagined, this resulted in a fair amount of debris. The kohanim (priests) were mandated to remove the ashes whenever there was a significant accumulation. This was called “removal of the ashes.”

In addition, each morning before the daily offering began, a kohen was required to carry out a symbolic removal of the ashes, taking some of the ashes from the altar with a shovel and placing them in a heap on the side. This was known as “the separation of the ashes.”

In both cases the Torah addresses the attire to be worn when carrying out the tasks.

When mandating the removal of the ashes, the Torah instructs:

He [the Kohen] should remove his clothes and wear different clothes; he shall then remove the ashes to a clean place outside the camp.1

Rashi elucidates:

In order that he does not sully his regular clothes while removing the ashes. By way of analogy, the clothes a servant wears to cook his master’s meal should not be worn when pouring the master’s drink.” Rashi adds that the “other garments” were inferior to those normally worn.

It is understandable that Rashi feels the need to provide an explanation, as there is a clear problem with the text. No one needs to be told that before you put on a new set of clothes, it is necessary to remove the clothes one is already wearing! So why does the text specifically instruct the kohen to remove his clothes before continuing with the real point, which is that he should wear different clothes? Rashi therefore explains that removing the clothes is the real reason for the change. The goal is not the new outfit, but to prevent the original one from being sullied.

The remainder of Rashi’s commentary, however, remains a mystery. Which part of the text compels Rashi to continue with what appears to be a new point, about how the kohen should be wearing different clothes for different tasks? And what is added with the analogy of a servant preparing food that could not be understood without it? The problem is even greater considering that Rashi insists the new clothes be of lesser importance than the ones removed, despite the fact there does not seem to be any indication of this in the text itself!

It may be fairly assumed that we are missing something here.

The Rebbe answers this by way of a keen observation that seems to have been overlooked.

As mentioned earlier, there were two tasks relating to the ashes: the daily symbolic separation, and the occasional substantial removal. The text we read above about the kohen changing his clothes refers to the removal of the ashes, but immediately before this there is a verse about the separation of the ashes, the symbolic removal of ashes that takes place early each morning.

The kohen shall wear his linen shirt and linen pants. He shall separate the ashes which the fire shall consume upon the altar, and he shall place [the ashes] next to the altar.

In other words, the kohen is supposed to wear his linen garments for this task of separating the ashes. But hold on, is this not the same type of garment he is instructed to wear for the removal of the ashes? Indeed, it is. So the Torah first instructs the Kohen to don linen garments to do the symbolic separation, and then instructs him to change out of his linen clothing and put on another set of linen clothes in order to do the larger task of removing the ashes to outside the camp when necessary.

This leaves us with an astonishing situation. The kohen is already wearing linen clothes to conduct the daily separation, yet he is being told to remove those and put on another set of linen clothes to do something that looks pretty similar to the original task. Why should the kohen change into new linen clothes when he has already changed into linen clothes to do the separation of the ashes? What could possibly be the point in that?

Both tasks - separating and removing the ashes - were messy jobs. True, removing the ashes was the much bigger task and was more likely to get the clothes dirty than the more modest removal of the ashes to the side of the altar. But how does that make any difference? Whyever should the kohen switch clothes between one not particular clean task and one that is even messier? If the kohen is already wearing linen clothes for the separation of the ashes, why ask him to change into a different set of linen clothes for the removal of the ashes? It really stretches credulity to think that this would make any sense at all.

This problem, says the Rebbe, is what Rashi is really trying to address. Rashi is introducing us to a concept of hierarchy of dress. It may seem that both the symbolic separating of ashes and the more substantial removal of the ashes are largely of a kind, but that misses an important point. Separation of ashes wholly takes place in the Temple (it is placed by the side of the altar), whereas the removal of ashes involves taking it to be disposed of beyond the boundaries of the Temple. That is why the clothes worn for the internal job of separating the ashes were to be different from the clothes worn for the external task of removing the ashes.

Rashi portrays this via the analogy of a master and his servant. Both cooking and serving drinks are largely the same idea: providing food for the master. But no rational person would equate them. Cooking is in the kitchen, behind the scenes. The kitchen is a messy place, and the food preparation that takes place there will almost certainly result in the servant’s clothes being sullied. By contrast, serving the drinks takes place in the banquet hall in the presence of guests. Serving drinks should not necessarily result in the servant’s clothes being dirtied.

Removal of the ashes is a lower task than separating the ashes – they are not to be treated as equal. Removal of the ashes is like the servant in the kitchen. Hence, says Rashi, it follows that the kohen should change his clothes between separating the ashes and removing the ashes; he should be wearing “lesser garments” when doing the latter. The kohen should undergo a sort of “costume change” between two acts which are similar but of unequal prestige.

But this gives rise to a question: if the two tasks are unequal, why change clothes altogether? Would it not be better if a more junior Kohen did the lesser task? If indeed removing the ashes is far inferior to separating the ashes, why would both tasks be done by the same person? To use Rashi’s analogy, would the cook also serve as the butler? Surely, these are quite separate roles for distinct people! Basically, the senior kohen would eschew such an unpopular task and relegate this for the novice kohen. Yet, this entire discussion of Rashi is predicated on the assumption that the same kohen is doing both (and thus changing clothes in between).

Here the Rebbe leaves us with a profound lesson. The same kohen who does the popular jobs has to be ready to do the unpopular ones. You don’t get to pick and choose. The senior kohen must not excuse himself from the unpleasant and messy undertakings. He must not avoid the jobs that force him to leave the Temple area. This is not how it should work. Perhaps there is a hierarchy of tasks – as Rashi says – but that does not mean there should be a hierarchy of people. Let the kohen who enjoys doing the elevated activity know that he has just as much responsibility to complete the less desirable activity. If he needs to change his clothes in between, so be it.

Get out there and get your hands dirty, if that is what is needed.

Adapted from Likkutei Sichot vol. 37, Tzav (pg. 1-6)