When is “taking out the ash” as simple as clearing up the remains of a fire? As often, perhaps, as a cigar is just a cigar. And when — in musing on “musings,” or sins of the heart — does “Mah nishtanah?” simply mean “What’s changed?”
Musings: or Sins of the Heart
This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it. The priest shall dress in linen raiment, with linen breaches next to his body; and he shall take up the ashes to which the fire has reduced the burnt offering on the altar and place them beside the altar. — Leviticus/Vayikra 6:2-4
Scholars have long drawn lessons of derekh eretz [manners/ethics] from this passage: Dress appropriately to an occasion, including Shabbat, as a sign of respect, e.g.; change dirty clothes before serving food, (see Something to Notice). Those preparing for Passover often seize on the topic of “housekeeping” as a sacred task, linking it with the seasonal search for chametz. But less straightforward lessons have also been linked with taking out the ash.
The olah — burnt offering, totally consumed by fire — is not obviously linked with any sin. However, R. Simeon bar Yochai associated the olah with sinful thoughts (Vayikra Rabbah 7:3). Nachmanides (Ramban) saw inner or secret thoughts — hirhurim ha-lev [literally: speculations of the heart] — as a kind of first step toward active sinning. See A Torah Commentary for Our Times* for a discussion of this.
The passage above’s focus on a sacrifice which burned all night caused some teachers to link it particularly with inappropriate sexual passions, which might also “burn all night.” (Can’t find an English citation, but some cite the Hebrew Torah Shelemah Menahem Kasher.)
Considering the link between the olah and hirhurim is one path to follow. Here’s another…