Have you ever wanted something so badly that you just kept praying and didn’t stop?
Most people have had a time they desperately wanted something, that if they got it, they’d never ask for anything again; to resolve the issue, find the right one, make a recovery, for the thing to work out okay. People pray hard in those moments, with more intention and hope than all the other times the stakes aren’t so high.
Sometimes those prayers are fulfilled, and the perfect outcome materializes. There are countless books filled with such stories, and their popularity is a product of how inspiring they are and how they supply us with hope to not give up on our own dreams and wishes.
But what about all the other times when the hoped-for outcome doesn’t happen?
No one writes those books; no one would read those books. But it happens all the time.
It even happens to the best and brightest of us, to no less than Moshe himself. In his parting words to his people, he tells them how he prayed and prayed for God’s permission to enter the Land of Israel, the culmination of his life’s work and the only personal indulgence he ever asked for, but God bid him to stop. It wasn’t going to happen, and his prayers would remain unanswered; or at least answered in the negative, if that makes any difference.
Prayer isn’t a wish fulfillment scratch card game; unanswered prayers are a corresponding aspect of prayer that we must acknowledge, that some of them probably aren’t going to go exactly the way you’d like. For our intents and purposes, some prayers go to waste.
The Izhbitzer notes this existence is wasteful; there is a friction that is a result of being alive, where all effort takes a toll, the transaction tax of all things. In this conception, waste is not a bug; it’s a feature we need to reorient ourselves to.
Entropy is part of all existence and our basic reality; the appearance of decay, randomness, uncertainty, and unwanted outcomes or outputs. Every interaction might have a desired or likely end goal or output, but there will be an inescapable by-product associated with it.
We are finite and limited; all we know is waste. You can be as energetic as you like, but in a couple of hours, you’ll be exhausted, your muscles will fatigue, and you will need to rest, eat, and sleep. When you sleep, your brain clears waste. When you eat and drink, your body will process the calories and nutrients, and you’ll need the restroom to pass waste matter. When you breathe, you breathe out waste gas, carbon dioxide. Our bodies and minds waste, and all energy and matter eventually waste.
It is significant that Pharaoh, the Torah’s great villain, claims to prove his divinity by pretending he did not pass waste; not producing waste indicates something genuinely supernatural, unlimited, and infinite.
Fruit and nuts have peels and shells, and although they’re waste in terms of what’s edible, they’re fully functional and fulfill their purpose of protecting the fruit, so in reality, they are not waste matter in any real sense of the word. Parenthetically, this example deliberately utilizes the imagery of the shells and husks spoken of in Kabbalah – קליפה. Everything leaves a mark.
The very first service of the day in the Temple was sweeping up the remnants from the day before:
וְהֵרִים אֶת־הַדֶּשֶׁן אֲשֶׁר תֹּאכַל הָאֵשׁ אֶת־הָעֹלָה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּחַ וְשָׂמוֹ אֵצֶל הַמִּזְבֵּחַ. וּפָשַׁט אֶת־בְּגָדָיו וְלָבַשׁ בְּגָדִים אֲחֵרִים וְהוֹצִיא אֶת־הַדֶּשֶׁן אֶל־מִחוּץ לַמַּחֲנֶה אֶל־מָקוֹם טָהוֹר – He shall take up the ashes from the fire, which consumed the burnt offering on the altar, and place them beside the altar. He shall then take off his vestments, put on other vestments, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a pure place. (6:3,4)
The altar had a fire perpetually fueled with logs by crews round the clock, with a constant stream of sacrifices burnt in whole or in part. Slaughtering and burning animals is messy; there is waste, and the day would begin with a simple dust-sweeping ritual. Some ash would be scooped up and brushed into the floor cracks, becoming integrated into the structure of the Temple. The rest of the ash got carried to a designated quiet spot and deposited and buried, to be left in state. It wasn’t a competitive or glamorous job; it was janitorial and practical, starting the day by cleaning the workspace.
R’ Shamshon Raphael Hirsch notes that this ritual symbolizes how today was built on yesterday; we are yesterday’s children. We honor the past by starting the day with an acknowledgment, incorporating an aspect of it into our being, but most of it has to be left behind to move on and start the day fresh. We must build on and respect the past, but we cannot spend too much time and energy focused on the rearview mirror. Each day brings new challenges, obligations, and opportunities, and we must ultimately leave the past behind us.
The Izbhitzer suggests that this ritual acknowledges and affirms our unanswered prayers, the orphan prayers that get left behind. The day begins with a recognition that even the holiest efforts experience waste, friction, transaction tax, fatigue, and wear and tear. Nothing is lossless, even the best things. Something is always lost in translation; not everything can go the way we hope. But that doesn’t mean the efforts went to waste; the ritual itself refers to the uplifting of this waste – תרומת הדשן.
Some of our efforts and prayers turn to ash; unanswered prayers are a thing, and the Temple service began at dawn by sweeping and disposing of yesterday’s ashes.
Something might be wrong with the road we hoped to travel, or it might be perfect but not meant to be; the hopes and dreams of yesterday might not be the road we must ultimately take. For good reason, we pray on Rosh Hashana to be like heads, not tails. Memory and identity can be burdens from the past; you can live perpetually as yesterday’s tail and never live freely in the present.
The thing you prayed for might have been the right thing to pray for yesterday, but today’s service calls for a fresh start or at least a fresh analysis.
We must cherish and honor our past hopes and dreams but ultimately let go and release them to face each day anew.