A number of households in St John’s Wood have recently been given new food waste bins. We are now required to separate food waste, mixed recycling and regular household rubbish for the weekly collection.

Disposal of waste was a matter of practical concern in the Temple and Tabernacle. Every evening, offerings were burned on the altar, which generated ashes that need to be cleared.

At the beginning of this week’s parasha we read that the first mitzva of the day for the Kohen in the Temple was Terumat HaDeshen, clearing away the ashes from the previous day. This took place in two stages. Wearing his personal Kohen robes the Kohen would remove ashes from the altar and place them on the east side of the altar. Later on, when a larger quantity of ash had accumulated, the Kohen would put on older garments that he didn’t mind getting dirty and remove the larger pile of ash to a location outside Jerusalem. There is a tradition among old residents of Jerusalem that the Beit Yisrael district, one of the first neighbourhoods set up outside the walls of the old city, was built on this site.

Why the two-stage disposal? Surely, it would have been more efficient to take the ash directly from the top of the altar to the outside repository?

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (d. Germany 1888) explains that leaving ashes on the side of the altar was a deliberate policy. It meant that that the first thing a Kohen would see when arriving at the altar was evidence of the previous day’s service. Why should that be important? Kohanim served on a rota basis in the Temple. There was an excitement for any Kohen that his turn to serve had arrived. There is a temptation to be so caught up in one’s own service that one easily dismisses what others have done. The sight of the ashes of yesterday’s service was a powerful reminder that what we do builds on those who have come before us. Of course, our contribution is important. But we must appreciate that those who preceded us prepared the way for what we are able to do. Just as our contribution will, in time, help those who come after us.

It is striking that this message is taught with something as insignificant as ashes. It is one thing to appreciate the contribution of the past when one can see lasting monuments. It is quite another when all you are looking at is rubbish! The Torah is teaching us that even when all you can see of yesterday’s achievements is ash, you must still respect the work of those who have paved the way for you.