The beginning of Parashat Tzav discusses the mitzva known as terumat ha-deshen. This mitzvah requires the kohen to remove the previous days ashes from the altar each morning.
Chazal, in the Mishna, Masekhet Yoma, 22a, describes the proper procedure taken to assist in the decision of which Kohen would do this ritual each day. The Mishna describes that the Kohanim who wanted to be involved in the Terumat Hadeshen ritual, could be involved. Yet, the overwhelming interest to perform the Terumat HaDeshen, would give way to a great deal of competition. Chazal explain that races would ensue. Kohanim would race up the ramp all the way to the top of the Mizbaiach (the altar). Whomever reached the top first, would have the honor of performing the Terumat haDeshen.
However, the Mishna explains that at a certain point, this competition to the top of the altar resulted in kohanim knocking off each other where some kohanim fell to the ground, suffering broken legs and more severe injuries. Rather than risking injury, the decision was made to take a daily lottery, each morning, in order to designate one kohen to the task of performing Terumat haDeshen.
While one may see the beauty in z'rizim makdimim l'mitzvah - being zealous in the performance of mitzvot, the lack of concern for others truly reflects a failure in ethical behavior.
There are great dangers in designating a disproportionate emphasis to ritual at the expense of others' well being. While the case in the Mishna highlights the commitment and dedication of the Kohen for service in the Mishkan, unfortunately, it simultaneously highlighted the failure of the kehuna, as leaders of Klal Yisrael, to see beyond their own spiritual needs or even tasks in favor of the more basic common decency and concern for those around them. Focusing on ritual over ethics has the potential to cause harm to others - even while in the service of Hashem.
The importance of service to HaKadosh Baruch Hu needs to be of the highest standard. But, this episode in the Mishna should serve as a serious warning about those individuals who see service to Hashem merely in the ritual. They serve Hashem with an enormous zeal. A necessary message from this incident is that one should serve Hashem with excitement and joy, however, one's religious zeal can never take precedence over the safety of others. One must always exercise careful thought and sound decision-making. It is possible, however, that in the case in the Mishna, Chazal is dealing with a Kohen who did not actively desire to shove his fellow kohen off the ramp in order to be first to the top of the altar. However, impulsive actions have the potential to turn off the intellect. When that happens, religious zeal runs the risk of becoming irreligious behavior. As we are commemorating the birth of our nation with the celebration of Pesach this coming week, we are reminded that considering the other is a necessary component of serving Hashem.
As the Kohen represents the collective, respecting the other should be of utmost importance. That is why, when involved in ritual, we must continuously reflect on our behavior and tasks and ensure that we serve Hashem with a great deal of energy, devotion and love for Hashem and all that HaKadosh Baruch Hu has created.