G-d humbles the proud
Parashat Tzav begins with a description of the kohen’s workday. His day begins with the removal of the ashes of the previous day’s sacrifices from the altar.
Why is this commanded as the first act of the kohen’s day? What is its purpose? Rabbi Bahya Ibn Pakuda, in his book Hovot ha-Levavot [“Duties of the Hearts”] wrote: “…and the Creator commanded him to remove the ashes every single day to make him humble and to remove haughtiness from his heart.”
Just imagine: the kohen arrives at the Temple in the morning and feels very special. He is a member of the elite. He may even feel that he enjoys some genetic superiority over the rest of the nation. Therefore, his first daily task humbles this potential pride. (This is one of the Divine attributes of which we read following the Shema Yisrael in the morning service: “God humbles the proud and raises the lowly”).
Arrogance is without a doubt one of the more dangerous human attributes, and it is uniquely human. There is nothing like it in the animal kingdom. Animals may be loyal or timid, we may find courage and even self-sacrifice, but arrogance is exclusively human.
There is a fable that tells of a song competition in the jungle. Each animal was given a ballot to vote for the winning competitor, and a giant ballot box was placed in the middle of the jungle. Then each animal – including the human – ascended to the podium, in alphabetical order, to sing.
The time came to count the votes. The elephant brought the ballot box to the center of the podium, and the owl began to call out the votes. The first vote was cast for the donkey, so was the second, and the third. There was silence in the jungle. The donkey was nice, but lacked charisma. The donkey delivered a poor performance in its hoarse, wobbly voice. Yet the donkey won all the votes, and all understood why. All the animals thought that the donkey could never win the competition, so they all voted for it, all but two. The donkey did not vote for itself, but cast its vote for the nightingale. And the human voted for himself.
The kohen may delude himself into thinking that he is supreme by virtue of his closeness to God’s Temple. He may conclude that all depends upon him, and that without his help Israel cannot realize God’s intended purpose. The point of the mitzvah of removing the ashes is to maintain the kohen’s sense of proportion, and to check any delusions of grandeur. It internalizes the message that he, too, is one of the people, and his position is the same as theirs.