Leviticus assigns some very messy duties to the Cohanim, the Priests of otherwise exalted status in the ancient Temple. Not only is the Priest charged with slaughtering the sacrificial animal and sprinkling blood according to prescribed ritual, he is also required to clean up after the ritual is complete.
Yes, that’s right. The same Priest who presides over the sacrificial ritual is the custodian. He changes clothes, sweeps up the ashes, and takes them to the dumping ground outside the camp — to the dumpster, if you will.
We may be surprised that Torah assigns this garbage run to the Priest himself. After all, Levites are charged to assist the Priests by taking on less exalted duties connected to the Temple service.
So what’s the lesson?
Recently, I transitioned from service as rabbi of a larger congregation of about 1000 households to a medium-sized synagogue of some 350 families. My new congregation employs one full-time custodian who doesn’t work on Saturday or Sunday. (I write “Saturday” rather than “Shabbat,” because he does work Friday evenings.)
We have a robust attendance at Shabbat Torah study, which always includes a breakfast snack provided by volunteers among the participants; and our Men’s Club assures that a lovely Kiddush follows Shabbat morning worship. Shortly after I arrived, an insect infestation inspired a decision that the garbage from this Shabbat morning gathering would need to be taken to the dumpster at the end of the morning’s activities rather than sitting in the inside trash can until Monday.
As the only staff member regularly present on Shabbat morning, I’m often the guy who takes the trash to the dumpster. Suffice it to say that I never took trash to the dumpster even once in 21 years at my previous congregation.
While I never reacted badly to this garbage duty, or imagined it beneath my station, I also didn’t find it edifying. Slowly, though, I began to see קדושה in the duty. No, I’m not a Cohen, but the trash is sacred: It is the refuse of the holy endeavors or Torah study and worship.
At my new congregation, every member, including the rabbi, needs to be a custodian. After Shabbat Kiddush, if I’m visiting with a congregant in need or a newcomer, or if I need to rush out to a pastoral or family obligation, a lay leader will take out our sacred Shabbat garbage.
The word “custodian” is often treated as a synonym of “janitor.” However, if we pay attention to the word, we will note that a custodian is one who has custody, who maintains a responsibility, often for something holy. Indeed, our most regular usage of the word “custody” refers to children!
Being a custodian wasn’t what I expected when I became a rabbi, or even when I sought placement in a smaller congregation, but I am grateful to have found meaning in taking out the sacred garbage.
Rabbi Barry Block is the rabbi of Congregation B’nai Israel in Little Rock, AR.