“Sure, you can go.”

That’s what my father told me in the car that night. I was stunned. Totally taken aback.

You see, for as long as I could remember, my father (of blessed memory) had this thing about his children celebrating the holidays at home. Especially when it came to the Passover Seder. It was unthinkable for any of us to spend the holiday elsewhere. It was simply blasphemous.

One of the experiences many of my friends would talk about enthusiastically was the Chabad program of sending yeshivah students to remote cities across the world to arrange Passover Seders for the local Jews, who often lacked full-time organized Jewish infrastructure. Many of my friends had done this for a few years already, and the stories and experiences they shared were tantalizing. I so badly wanted to experience it myself.

But I knew my father would never agree. I’d even asked him the year before, and he would have none of it.

That year, however, I decided: “That’s it. I’m doing it, and I don’t care.” And so there I was in the car, picking up my father at the airport in New York where I was studying. He had come to attend a wedding, and for weeks I had mentally prepared for the showdown that would certainly ensue. I steeled myself with all the resolve of an impudent, determined twenty-year-old. In my mind, I was going to wage this war to the bitter end.

So, after exchanging pleasantries, I started to hem and haw. After he told me to spit it out, I came out with guns blazing, firmly stating not my desire, but my foregone conclusion, “I’m going this year!”

“Ok, sure. If that’s what you want, go ahead.”

That was it? All the mental battle-ready soldiers had just been casually neutralized without a peep—just like that. I was speechless.

(Spoiler: I didn’t end up going for technical reasons, but that’s not the point.)

My father pulled a fast one on me that evening, and now that I’m older, and somehow he seems to keep getting smarter, I think I understand what he knew then.

His little secret can be found buried in the Temple trash of millennia ago.

Taking Out the Temple Trash

One of the first rites carried out in the Temple each morning was something called, “Clearing the ashes,” a mitzvah described in this week’s parshah. Each day, ashes piled up on the altar from the many sacrifices offered there, and so, to keep things tidy, the priests were tasked with clearing the residue.

Breaking it down, the verse tells us that there were two distinct jobs:

And the kohen shall don his linen tunic, and he shall don his linen trousers on his flesh. And 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. He shall then take off his garments and put on other garments, and he shall take out the ashes to a clean place outside the camp.1

In other words, the priest would first don his priestly vestments and move a token amount of ash off to the side in what was largely a ceremonial gesture. Thereafter, he would change into plain clothes, roll up his sleeves, and clear the whole lot of ashes, carrying them out of the entire Temple complex.

Why did he change his clothes in between? Rashi explains:

So as not to soil the garments in which he constantly officiates. [By analogy:] The clothes worn [by a servant] while cooking a pot [of food] for his master, he should not wear when he mixes a glass [of wine] for his master.2

The removing a small portion of ash an honorable, religious rite that warranted special attire. The clean-up job was pretty much janitorial work, and it wouldn’t make sense to wear the same clothes.

But here’s the question: Was there a shortage of manpower in the Temple? What was the point of this quick costume change mid-act, when there were plenty of other priests clamoring for jobs? Couldn’t they have assigned these two jobs to two different actors?

This Is Spiritual?

The fact that the same priest did both jobs tells us everything we need to know about serving G‑d, cutting straight to the heart of Judaism. The Temple was the quintessential place of Divine service, so this was a teaching moment—right at the beginning of each day—showing how we ought to approach every day of our religious devotion.

To explain:

Have you ever asked yourself, “Is Judaism spiritual? Is it supposed to make me feel spiritual?”

Think about it: You don’t like the taste of matzah, but you eat it anyway. You’re not particularly awake or interested, yet you wear tefillin, or distractedly light Shabbat candles.

You’ve done a mitzvah, no doubt, but was it spiritual? Did it feel inspiring?

Can you compare that with gazing at a magnificent sunset over the Grand Canyon or staring into the face of a newborn baby? The euphoria felt while singing a Chassidic melody with thousands of other people, or the awe-inspiring majesty of the stones at the Western Wall?

Now that’s spiritual!

So what is it about the dry, technical, highly detailed, and hyper action-oriented choreography of Judaism? Can’t we trade the matzah for something tastier and the tefillin for meditation?

It’s About G‑d

Well, if Judaism was about you, then you would be right. If it was here to service you, to make you feel good, inspired, or “spiritual,” well, then, go right ahead and sing to your heart’s content.

But it’s not. It’s about G‑d, creating a relationship with a Being who has reached over the impossible chasm between infinite and finite and gifted us with the opportunity to connect with Him. An extended hand to climb out of our puny humanity and connect with something larger than life itself.

And he instructed us that the bridge past that unscalable divide is a 6 oz. matzah, a perfectly rectangular tefillin, and challah made from 5 lbs. of flour. If you or me were dictating the rules of this game, perhaps we could have come up with something that feels more inspiring. But then it would be our game. If we want to connect with G‑d, to experience true transcendence and meaning, you guessed it, it’s in 5 lbs., not 4.9.

And that’s why the same priest who performed the exalted ritual of taking a token amount of ash in sacred attire got the dirty job of removing trash in plain clothes. If the priest was concerned about the “spirituality” of the job, it would, indeed, make sense to split the two jobs: ceremonial rites are great, but who wants to take out the trash? Let someone else do that!

But each day, as he began serving G‑d in the holiest place on earth on behalf of the entire Jewish people, the same priest did both, broadcasting this message: The same G‑d Who prescribed the sacred act wishes for the janitorial act. If I'm in it for Him, it doesn’t matter what it is. Trash duty? I’m in! Let me just change my clothes.

Real Love

My dad understood the same with me. He may have wanted me to be home with the family for Passover. In fact, I’m sure he did. But he was a loving parent. He understood that if he truly loved me, then he should let me go. As much as parents love their children, they must take pause at times and ask themselves, “Am I doing/demanding this for my child, or for myself?”

If you’re invested in a loving relationship, it will require doing things for the relationship—for the other, not for you. You may want your child home for the holidays, it may even be the “right thing,” but sometimes, true love dictates that you let your child go.

My father taught that to me that night. I hope to do the same with my children.