You can find the rest of the parsha text on Chabad.org at Tzav.
From Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
Left- and Right-Brain Judaism
The institution of the Haftarah – reading a passage from the prophetic literature alongside the Torah portion – is an ancient one, dating back at least 2000 years. Scholars are not sure when, where, and why it was instituted. Some say that it began when Antiochus IV’s attempt to eliminate Jewish practice in the second century BCE sparked the revolt we celebrate on Chanukah. At that time, so the tradition goes, public reading from the Torah was forbidden. So the Sages instituted that we should read a prophetic passage whose theme would remind people of the subject of the weekly Torah portion.
Another view is that it was introduced to protest the views of the Samaritans, and later the Sadducees, who denied the authority of the prophetic books except the book of Joshua.
The existence of haftarot in the early centuries CE is, however, well attested. Early Christian texts, when relating to Jewish practice, speak of “the Law and the Prophets,” implying that the Torah (Law) and Haftarah (Prophets) went hand-in-hand and were read together. Many early Midrashim connect verses from the Torah with those from the haftarah. So the pairing is ancient.
Often the connection between the parsha and the haftarah is straightforward and self-explanatory. Sometimes, though, the choice of prophetic passage is instructive, telling us what the Sages understood as the key message of the parsha.
Consider the case of Beshallach. At the heart of the parsha is the story of the division of the Red Sea and the passage of the Israelites through the sea on dry land. This is the greatest miracle in the Torah. There is an obvious historical parallel. It appears in the book of Joshua. The river Jordan divided allowing the Israelites to pass over on dry land: “The water from upstream stopped flowing. It piled up in a heap a great distance away … The Priests who carried the ark of the covenant of the Lord stopped in the middle of the Jordan and stood on dry ground, while all Israel passed by until the whole nation had completed the crossing on dry ground.” (Josh. ch. 3).
This, seemingly, should have been the obvious choice as haftarah. But it was not chosen. Instead, the Sages chose the song of Devorah from the book of Judges. This tells us something exceptionally significant: that tradition judged the most important event in Beshallach to be not the division of the sea but rather the song the Israelites sang on that occasion: their collective song of faith and joy.
This suggests strongly that the Torah is not humanity’s book of God but God’s book of humankind. Had the Torah been the our book of God, the focus would have been on the Divine miracle. Instead, it is on the human response to the miracle.
So the choice of haftarah tells us much about what the Sages took to be the parsha’s main theme. But there are some haftarot that are so strange that they deserve to be called paradoxical, since their message seems to challenge rather than reinforce that of the parsha. One classic example is the haftarah for the morning of Yom Kippur, from the 58th chapter of Isaiah, one of the most astonishing passages in the prophetic literature:
Is this the fast I have chosen – a day when a man will oppress himself? … Is this what you call a fast, “a day for the Lord’s favour”? No: this is the fast I choose. Loosen the bindings of evil and break the slavery chain. Those who were crushed, release to freedom; shatter every yoke of slavery. Break your bread for the starving and bring dispossessed wanderers home. When you see a person naked, clothe them: do not avert your eyes from your own flesh. (Is. 58:5-7)
The message is unmistakable. We spoke of it in last week’s Covenant and Conversation. The commands between us and God and those between us and our fellows are inseparable. Fasting is of no use if at the same time you do not act justly and compassionately to your fellow human beings. You cannot expect God to love you if you do not act lovingly to others. That much is clear.
But to read this in public on Yom Kippur, immediately after having read the Torah portion describing the service of the High Priest on that day, together with the command to “afflict yourselves,” is jarring to the point of discord. Here is the Torah telling us to fast, atone and purify ourselves, and here is the Prophet telling us that none of this will work unless we engage in some kind of social action, or at the very least behave honourably toward others. Torah and haftarah are two voices that do not sound as if they are singing in harmony.
The other extreme example is the haftarah for today’s parsha. Tzav is about the various kinds of sacrifices. Then comes the haftarah, with Jeremiah’s almost incomprehensible remark:
For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey Me, and I will be your God and you will be My people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you. (Jer. 7:22-23)
This seems to suggest that sacrifices were not part of God’s original intention for the Israelites. It seems to negate the very substance of the parsha.
What does it mean? The simplest interpretation is that it means “I did not only give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices.” I commanded them but they were not the whole of the law, nor were they even its primary purpose.
A second interpretation is the famously controversial view of Maimonides that the sacrifices were not what God would have wanted in an ideal world. What He wanted was avodah: He wanted the Israelites to worship Him. But they, accustomed to religious practices in the ancient world, could not yet conceive of avodah shebalev, the “service of the heart,” namely prayer. They were accustomed to the way things were done in Egypt (and virtually everywhere else at that time), where worship meant sacrifice. On this reading, Jeremiah meant that from a Divine perspective sacrifices were bedi’avad not lechatchilah, an after-the-fact concession not something desired at the outset.
A third interpretation is that the entire sequence of events from Exodus 25 to Leviticus 25 was a response to the episode of the Golden Calf. This, I have argued elsewhere, represented a passionate need on the part of the people to have God close not distant, in the camp not at the top of the mountain, accessible to everyone not just Moses, and on a daily basis not just at rare moments of miracle. That is what the Tabernacle, its service and its sacrifices represented. It was the home of the Shechinah, the Divine Presence, from the same root as sh-ch-n, “neighbour.” Every sacrifice – in Hebrew korban, meaning “that which is brought near” – was an act of coming close. So in the Tabernacle, God came close to the people, and in bringing sacrifices, the people came close to God.
This was not God’s original plan. As is evident from Jeremiah here and the covenant ceremony in Exodus 19-24, the intention was that God would be the people’s sovereign and lawmaker. He would be their king, not their neighbour. He would be distant, not close (see Ex. 33:3). The people would obey His laws; they would not bring Him sacrifices on a regular basis. God does not need sacrifices. But God responded to the people’s wish, much as He did when they said they could not continue to hear His overwhelming voice at Sinai: “I have heard what this people said to you. Everything they said was good” (Deut. 5:25). What brings people close to God has to do with people, not God. That is why sacrifices were not God’s initial intent but rather the Israelites’ spiritual-psychological need: a need for closeness to the Divine at regular and predictable times.
What connects these two haftarot is their insistence on the moral dimension of Judaism. As Jeremiah puts it in the closing verse of the haftarah, “I am the Lord, who exercises kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight,” (Jer. 9:23). That much is clear. What is genuinely unexpected is that the Sages joined sections of the Torah and passages from the prophetic literature so different from one another that they sound as if coming from different universes with different laws of gravity.
That is the greatness of Judaism. It is a choral symphony scored for many voices. It is an ongoing argument between different points of view. Without detailed laws, no sacrifices. Without sacrifices in the biblical age, no coming close to God. But if there are only sacrifices with no prophetic voice, then people may serve God while abusing their fellow humans. They may think themselves righteous while they are, in fact, merely self-righteous.
The Priestly voice we hear in the Torah readings for Yom Kippur and Tzav tells us what and how. The Prophetic voice tells us why. They are like the left and right hemispheres of the brain; or like hearing in stereo, or seeing in 3D. That is the complexity and richness of Judaism, and it was continued in the post-biblical era in the different voices of halachah and Aggadah.
Put Priestly and Prophetic voices together and we see that ritual is a training in ethics. Repeated performance of sacred acts reconfigures the brain, reconstitutes the personality, reshapes our sensibilities. The commandments were given, said the Sages, to refine people. The external act influences inner feeling. “The heart follows the deed,” as the Sefer ha-Chinuch puts it.
I believe that this fugue between Torah and Haftarah, Priestly and Prophetic voices, is one of Judaism’s great glories. We hear both how to act and why. Without the how, action is lame; without the why, behaviour is blind. Combine Priestly detail and Prophetic vision and you have spiritual greatness.
 Tanhuma, Shemini, 12.
 Sefer ha-Chinuch, Bo, Mitzvah 16.
From Brian Yosef Shachter-Brooks
The Mask – Parshat Tzav
How do you come up with the complete works of Shakespeare?
Just take a bunch of hydrogen, and leave it alone for about fourteen billion years!
There seems to be a miraculous potential within the very fabric of reality itself to evolve – to develop into higher and more complex structures, to go from inanimate matter to conscious beings. You start off with hydrogen atoms, and over time, you end up with us. In Judaism, that potential is called Hashem.
This Divine potential to create and to become is inherent within us; just as sure as we exist, so the power of Hashem is at the core of who we are, calling us to evolve, to be willing partners in the process of Creation. It is not something we have to acquire; it is our essential being, behind the mask of our individuality. Our task is only to remember it, to awaken it, and to express it.
וּמַה נָּעִים גּוֹרָלֵנוּ, וּמַה יָּפָה יְרֻשָּׁתֵנוּ אַשְׁרֵינוּ מַה טּוֹב חֶלְקֵנוּ,
Ashreinu mah tov helkeinu, umah na’im goraleinu, umah yafa yerushateinu!
We are fortunate – how good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, how beautiful our heritage!
Our Divine nature is our heritage, our destiny, our task – and when we’re ready, it becomes our commitment:
צַ֤ו אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו לֵאמֹ֔ר זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָעֹלָ֑ה הִ֣וא הָעֹלָ֡ה עַל֩ מוֹקְדָ֨ה עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ כָּל־הַלַּ֙יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶר וְאֵ֥שׁ הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ תּ֥וּקַד בּֽוֹ׃
Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the teaching of the Elevation Offering. It is the Elevation Offering that is on the flame on the altar all night long until the morning; the fire on the altar should be kept burning on it.
“All night long” – in this dark time of such tremendous suffering and violence on our planet, we are “commanded” – if we can “hear” it – to “keep our fire burning” – to stay present, to be Presence, to elevate by burning up whatever destructive and unconscious patterns we find within ourselves. And as we transform ourselves, so do we transform the world. Because the more conscious we become, the more others will be able to feel that Presence in our presence, and that consciousness will spread – just as one flame ignites another without diminishing itself.
In this way, our Divine potential that is ordinarily hidden becomes more and more revealed.
There’s a story that before Reb Simcha Bunam was a rebbe, he traded in lumber. Once when he was in Dansig on business, the other merchants asked him why he bothered visiting his rebbe. “How can your rebbe teach you anything that you haven’t already learned from all those books you read?” They said.
That night, a number of them went to the theater. They invited Reb Simcha Bunam along, but he declined. Later, when they returned, they lamented he had missed such an amazing performance.
“What do I need to see the performance for? I already know all about that show!” said Reb Simcha Bunam.
“What do you mean? How could you know all about it – you haven’t seen it!”
“Yes, but I read the program!”
“You can’t really know a show just by reading the program, you have to experience it for yourself!” they retorted.
“And so it is with my rebbe – what he reveals cannot be learned from books.” The merchants were silenced.
On this week of Shabbat Tzav and Purim, may we keep the flames of Presence burning on the altar of this moment and reveal the Divine potential behind all of our masks. Hag Samayakh, Good Shabbos!
From My Jewish Learning
From Guilt to Action
The sacrificial system teaches that coming nearer to God requires coming nearer to each other.
BY RABBI DOROTHY A. RICHMAN
Commentary on Parashat Tzav, Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36
When I wash myself with water I shudder, thinking:
This is the sweat of millions of laborers.”
Street-walkers are my bastard sisters,
and sinister criminals–souls perhaps transmigrated from me.
Concerning those murdered,
I think that I encouraged the assassin.
Perhaps I insulted
the disgraced people in my town.
Something in me confesses
“I’m guilty a thousand times for your distress.”
I want to throw my head at your doorsteps–
Prisons, hospitals–and beg forgiveness.
–Abraham Joshua Heschel
Guilt is assumed to be part and parcel of the modern Jewish experience. We laugh about our tribe’s over-developed sense of shame: There are countless jokes about guilt-inducing Jewish mothers and Woody Allen films featuring neurotic Jewish sons.
In this poem, however, guilt is no laughing matter. In scene after scene of injustice, Abraham Joshua Heschel confronts excruciating examples of personal responsibility. He seeks to confess and beg forgiveness. But to whom? And how? His guilt produces an existential anxiety that tortures him, but provides little benefit to his perceived victims.
The Guilt Offering
In Parashat Tzav, guilt feelings are transformed into actions bringing healing. The ritual of the guilt offering, asham, is straightforward. One who suspects or knows that he is guilty of wrongdoing, either by commission or omission, brings a ram without blemish to a priest at the altar.
Sections of the animal are burned and turned into smoke while other sections are set aside to be cooked and eaten by the priests (Leviticus 7:2-10). Offering this sacrifice, a person’s guilt is made publicly manifest and is then absolved.
The ancient system of sacrifice offered a ritual of coming together for the community. Rather than worry in isolation about acts committed and omitted, the individual was able to articulate the wrong and bring a symbol of contrition.
Amorphous feelings of guilt were brought out of one’s internal world and were transformed into concrete objects in a shared communal experience. While our modern sense of guilt connotes angst, “shoulds” that stay inside of us to no good purpose, the ancient guilt offering went out and away…and nourished the priests.
Of course, the ancient ways are not available to us now. Instead of offering animals in the sacrificial system, Jews offer prayers to God. Though I don’t advocate a return to Temple ritual, I can’t help feeling that something has been lost in the transition from the tangible, sensory experience of smoke, fire, and flesh to the post-Temple offerings of syllables.
Action and Advocacy
The word “sacrifice” in Hebrew is korban. Its root, k-r-v, denotes closeness and intimacy. Sacrifices, seen as a system of visceral interactions and sacred meals, didn’t just bring worshippers closer to God, they brought the community members into contact with one another. Perhaps that is what this system of sacrifice, or “getting close,” is trying to achieve: it insists that coming nearer to God means connecting more deeply with each other.
In his poem, Abraham Joshua Heschel wants to confess his guilt: “I’m guilty a thousand times for your distress.” He wrote these words in Yiddish as a student in pre-Holocaust Europe. Years later, teaching in America, Heschel moved from expressing feelings of personal guilt to a call for active response.
He writes, “It is important to feel anxiety, it is sinful to wallow in despair. What we need is a total mobilization of the heart, intelligence, and wealth for the purpose of love and justice.”
Like the young Heschel, we can witness the myriad problems on our neighborhood streets, around our city blocks and throughout the world, and see only our guilt. The model of the ancient asham encourages us to transform those interior feelings into communal acts of love and justice. Isolated, we see our inadequacy and shame. Getting closer to one another, in community action and advocacy, we approach healing.
This commentary is provided by special arrangement with American Jewish World Service. To learn more, visit http://www.ajws.org.
From the Hebrew College
The Paradoxical Freedom of Routine
By Rabbi Benjamin Barer
Judaism has always concerned itself with proscribing ritual actions that govern our lives, not simply those related to prayer or the rituals of our holy days. In the modern world, this all-encompassing focus can seem oppressive, but paradoxically it can also be freeing. Buried within the seemingly endless descriptions of the sacrifices the Israelites offered in the mishkan, or portable Tabernacle, lies a hint as to why this might be.
Parshat Tzavopens by describing the burnt offering, or olah (lit. “raised up”). It is to be consumed by the fire of the altar, meant to be fully for God’s pleasure. While all sacrifices offered in ancient Judaism “went up” to God, the olahleft nothing over. The priests are instructed that “a perpetual [tamid]fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out” (Lev. 6:6), presumably so that many such offerings could be offered and burned each day. The most well-known olah, however, was the twice-daily olat tamid, the constant olah offered to inaugurate and conclude each day’s sacrifices. This sacrifice, in addition to being offered in a constant way, was offered identically each time — a year-old lamb along with a tenth of a measure of flour and a quarter of a biblical measurement (a hin) of both oil and wine (Ex. 29:38-41).
While this might seem like just another ritual obligation associated with the mishkan, the rabbis make it perfectly clear that something more is going on:
Ben Zoma says: We have found a more inclusive verse, and it is, “Hear O Israel.” (Deut. 6:4)
Ben Nanas says: We have found a more inclusive verse, and it is, “Love your neighbor as yourself.” (Lev. 19:18)
Shimon Ben Pazi says: We have found a more inclusive verse and it is, “The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening.” (Ex. 29:39)
Rabbi Ploni stood up and said: The halakhah is in accordance with ben Pazi.
Here the rabbis reflect on what they thought was the most important, foundational, or most “inclusive” verse in Torah. Their brief statements are meant to perk up the ears of the reader. There The first two responses are not surprising at all: the Sh’ma, proclaiming the unity of God is recited twice daily, just like the olat tamid. Similarly, “love your neighbor as yourself” is one of the most well-known verses in the Torah, and gets to the core of Jewish ethics. Rabbi Shimon ben Pazi’s most “inclusive” verse, however, seems to come out of left field. The most important message of the Torah is encoded in the instruction to offer the olat tamid? How could this possibly be more important than meditating on the unity of God or treating our fellow human beings with the care and compassion we ourselves expect?
It is precisely its unexpectedness that requires that ben Pazi be taken seriously. Is it possible that the ways in which we start and end each day matter most? I think that ben Pazi was telling us that such routine can lead more predictably to lives dedicated to the harder-to-attain goals articulated by his colleagues. The Torah, therefore, begins with the more basic instruction of starting and ending each day with a simple ritual. By engaging in this communal expression of gratitude we can engage in the work of love and unification with greater clarity and sensitivity. It is only through such routinization that we can come to reap the fruits that ritual practice affords. The Sefat Emet (1847-1905) teaches that the core revelation experienced by the Israelites was this dual nature of Torah: that it rules over us and that it is life-giving.
The olat tamid offeringsare commemorated today by the prayers said before the morning service, when many Jews recite biblical passages describing the sacrifices, and by the bedtime recitation of the Sh’ma. This mirroring of the olat tamid reminds me that each day will be approached more intentionally if held in a ritual container. In much the same way, the more turbulent our world becomes, the more such containers are needed.
R. Jacob ibn Habib’s Introduction to Ein Yaakov(1516)
Shavuot #1, 5631
From Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies
Shabbat Parashat Tsav
By: Rabbi Adam Greenwald
Commanded and Connected
“And God spoke to Moses, saying: ‘Command your brother and his sons regarding the Torah of the offerings.” (Leviticus 6:1-2)
Mitzvah is one of the foundational words of Jewish life. Its root comes from the verb which is the name of this week’s parasha: Tzav, “command.” Despite its colloquial usage as “good deed,” mitzvah really means “commandment”—a holy edict, meant to give shape and substance to what it means to live as a member of the Jewish covenant.
As has often been noted, more than Judaism is a religion of faith claims, it is a religion of sanctified actions. Jewish life is not primarily defined by the theology that one holds, but rather by the mitzvot that enact those commitments into daily practice. By the traditional reckoning, the Torah is said to contain 613 mitzvot, to which the later rabbinic tradition adds thousands more, which introduce holiness into every aspect of our lives.
Mitzvot come in three categories – theological, ethical, and ritual. Theological mitzvot guide us in our relationship with the Divine: “You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:3). Ethical mitzvot train us in how to treat others: “You shall love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18). And, ritual mitzvot teach us to add moments of sanctity to our lives: “Guard the Shabbat day and keep it holy” (Deuteronomy 5:12). Taken together, this system of theological, ethical, and ritual imperatives are referred to collectively as halakha, the sacred path of the commandments.
Yet, the concept of “commandedness” is a difficult one. Speaking personally, I have always struggled with the notion of a God who sits on a heavenly throne issuing decrees about what I may or may not eat, or what forms of labor I may or may not engage in on Shabbat. For me — as I believe to be true for many Jews — I experience God not primarily as an anthropomorphic King and Lawgiver, but rather in more abstract terms: an ennobling Force, a loving Guide, an animating Spirit. Put another way, while I am deeply committed to living a life of mitzvot (commandments), I wrestle with a genuine ambivalence over the nature of the metzuveh (commander).
This tension bothered me for many years – leaving me with nagging doubts about the logic of observing the mitzvot without necessarily believing they reflect the actual commanding voice of God. Then I was taught an insight which transformed my understanding of this challenge forever. It turns out that while the Hebrew verb tzav, the root word of mitzvah, means “to command” – in Aramaic, the other great ancient Jewish tongue and the language of the Talmud, the verb instead means “to connect.”
With this shift, mitzvot became not a set of obeisances owed to a Sovereign, but a collection of points of connection to the Holy One. Whether or not God cares about my dietary choices ceased to be important, since the mitzvah of kashrut became an opportunity for me to reach out to the Divine through my intentional choices. The mitzvah of Shabbat transformed from a burden externally imposed upon me, to an opportunity to quiet the world in order to better hear the whisper of the still, small Voice.
While understanding mitzvah as commandment led to me to doubt, understanding mitzvah as connection led me to the relationship. And, it is in this re-framing that I learned a new way to walk the path of halakha— not as a servant, but as a partner with the Holy One, Who wants, more than anything else, to connect.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Bring your Offering Bring it Now
Tales from the New Talmud
The old Talmud mentions quoting the house of Rav Ishmael that every place where the imperative Tzav! Is used has an urgency, not just for now but for the future. This week is Tzav. We are also taught among the offerings that nothing can be used of the burnt offerings, except for the hides, you might make a nice jacket out of the hides.
In the new Talmud we are making jackets all the time really fine ones out of the remnants of our lives what we have lifted up what has been burnt or consumed or ruined we make a jacket out of what’s left, the externals, the hides. Some days that’s all we have. We put on a nice jacket, a fine suit if given to the Italian esthetic, we put on some new shoes because from the inside we are messed up but from the outside looking good. How you doing?
Not so great but I look good. And today I convinced myself that this Zegna is going to sustain. Some days that’s all I have and that will have to be enough. My outsides will have to nudge my insides and it will work for me, as it is written in the new Talmud, when you’re not doing so ay yi yi on those days when it’s hard to get up and on with it, put on that great suit buy yourself a new pair of shoes and get out. You might feel enough better to get on with it. A day at a time. Sometimes an hour.
How you doing? Looking good feeling bad. Shop retail once in a while and support the independents. Thus it is written in the new Talmud.
My teacher spent one year in his new home. That’s what he wanted, one complete cycle, a year of holidays, one day. When we were packing him up, he gave me a few mementos: the first radio he acquired in the United States. The radio for him was a symbol of new life with an ear to the world. He walked out of a dark Europe with a couple of possessions. He also left me a few books of sifrei drush, commentaries, mostly about Leviticus, and he told me this: when you can work these texts, you can work any text. Everything in your life is a text out of which you make meaning.
Ears, Thumbs And Toes
The ceremony installing the priests teaches the importance of consecrating the entire body for sacred service.
BY RABBI BRADLEY ARTSON
Traditionally, the Book of Vayikra (Leviticus) was known as Torat Kohanim, “the Teachings of the Priests.” Its contents are directed to people who would be ministering in the Temple in Jerusalem, and its topics pertain to priestly sacrifice, ritual and purity.
Yet, our tradition also holds that the eternal task of the Jewish People is to mold ourselves into a nation of priests, a holy people. In doing so, the standards that apply to a ‘kohen‘ (priest) in the Beit Ha-Mikdash (the Temple) are essential tools for elevating our own spiritual and ritual status as well. The same guidance that the Torah provided the ” at his task can ennoble and uplift the serious Jew of today as well.
In seeking to fulfill our divine mission, we turn to the very book that trained God’s servants in antiquity as well. At the outset of our commitment to become a nation of priests, we can look with special benefit to the ordination of the ‘kohanim‘ (priests) into their sacred service.
An Elaborate Ceremony
That installation took place amidst elaborate ceremony. The ‘kohanim’ washed themselves to become ritually pure, and then donned special clothing to demarcate themselves for their activity in the Temple. Anointed with a special oil, the ‘kohanim’ sacrificed a sin offering to atone for their own shortcomings and errors before attempting to intercede for the atonement of the people.
After sacrificing the ram of burnt offering, Moses took some blood from the ram of ordination, and “put it on the ridge of Aaron‘s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot.” He then repeated that same ritual for each of Aaron’s sons. Finally, the remains of the animal were boiled and consumed by the newly-ordained ‘kohanim.’
That same ritual was repeated throughout seven complete days of celebration. Why was blood applied to those particular extremities–the right thumb, toe and ear? An ancient commentator, Philo (1st Century Egypt), perceived that, “The fully consecrated must be pure in words and actions and in life; for words are judged by hearing, the hand is the symbol of action, and the foot of the pilgrimage of life.” Thus, Philo reads specific meaning into each of the three body parts by analyzing the special function of each part in terms of their human use.
Our words, actions and life all must cultivate our highest potential of growth, expression and humanity. Rabbi Abraham ibn Ezra (12th Century, Spain) argues, on the other hand, that the ear “symbolizes that one must attend to what has been commanded” and the thumb “is the origin of all activity.”
Unlike Philo, ibn Ezra sees the two pivotal points as obedience to God’s ‘mitzvot‘ (commandments) and a commitment to a life of sacred deeds. While ibn Ezra provides different reasons than Philo, the two of them agree in reading metaphoric meaning into the details of the ritual (which body parts are used).
However, both sages ignore the requirement of spilling blood, and both fail to explain the entire ritual as an interrelated unit. Building on their insights, we can extend their vision by utilizing the methods and findings of the modern study of religion as well.
Blood As a Symbol
Blood is a symbol filled with ambivalent meaning. A symbol of life (recall the emblem of the Red Cross) and of death (think of the devil’s pitchfork), it is as a simultaneous expression of both realities–life and death–that blood becomes such a prominent symbol for moments and places of transition. At a child’s birth–with ‘brit milah‘ (circumcision), at the first Passover–when blood was smeared on the lintels of Jewish homes, blood marks the moment or the place as a transition between death and renewed life.
Here, too, by placing sacrificial blood on the priest’s extremities, the Torah indicates that the newly-ordained ‘kohen’ has passed through a transitional moment from being a private citizen to becoming a representative of God and a public leader. Ear, hand and foot–an abbreviated code for his entire body–emphasize that service to one’s highest ideals, to one’s people, or to one’s God, must be total.
Through his induction into the Temple ritual, he entered a higher state of purity, devotion and of service. To become a nation of priests requires of us no less.
Provided by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies, which ordains Conservative rabbis at the American Jewish University.
I love words. Part of my initial interest in learning Hebrew was my desire to delve into the Hebrew of our sacred texts, to go ‘deep sea diving’ into the words, seeking meaning and relevance hiding under the obvious. This parsha, detailing the priests responsibilities and actions for five varied types of sacrifices, contains minutiae, apparently trivial specifics about a ritual which seem today, without the existence of a priestly class, irrelevant. But, oh, the words!
I want to comment on just two of them.
First, “tzav”, which is the title of the parsha, is the first word in Leviticus 6:2, and is usually translated as ‘command’. It is the root of the verb “Mitzvah”, which, in common American conversation, is translated as ‘good deed’. This translation misses the mark!
When the letter ‘mem’ appears before a verb in Hebrew, it changes that word into a noun—as if the ‘mem’ adds the idea of ‘that which’ performs the action at the root of that verb. For example, the Hebrew verb root “chashav”, to think, was used to invent a new Hebrew word for the computer “machshev”,”that which thinks”. Thus the word “mitzvah” means “that which is commanded”.
Digging more deeply, the verb “tsav” also means ‘to connect’, the way the vav before a word in Hebrew means “and”, thus connecting the previous word with the one having the vav prefix. In ancient Hebrew, the pictographic depiction of a vav was a hook, looking a bit like a crochet hook, indicating connection. Following this thought process, the word ‘mitzvah’ could be accurately translated as “a commanded connection”.
In Rabbinic tradition, a mitzvah always requires action….just thinking about a commandment does not fulfill one’s obligation to it. A blessing containing the word ‘mitzvah’ must be followed by the appropriate action. Without that action, the blessing would be considered a “b’racha levatalah” (an unnecessary blessing, being careful not to transgress the grave prohibition of taking God’s name in vain.
Combining these ideas, one derives a more complete translation of the word “mitzvah”: “A commanded opportunity to connect with God through action”! The detailed descriptions of the priests responsibilities in this Parsha follow this logic well.
The second word I want to comment upon also appears in verse Lev 6:2, in the phrase “al mokdah al hamizbeach”. “Mokdah” is a Hapax legomen, a word that only appears once in the Bible in this form; it only refers to the altar-hearth on which burnt offerings were laid and consumed. This word comes from the root “yud kuf dalet” (to be kindled, burnt). Adding the ‘mem’ as a prefix would turn the word into ‘that which is burnt”. But a pyre is not burnt, it is a place where offerings are placed for burning. The phrase reads (in the Jewish Publication Society translation) “The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar”. …English translations by JPS leave out the word “mokdah’, which could have easily been translated as ‘altar-hearth’. When a word in the Bible is not translated, my interest increases.
Looking at the way the word actually appears in the Torah scroll, there’s a fascinating surprise. The ‘mem’ is tiny, miniature, inserted and raised above the rest of the word! Why?
I have been taught by Torah scribes that such instances of scribal peculiarities are in fact midrashim, commentaries on the Biblical text. The Rebbe of Kotzk, commenting on this ‘little mem’, explained that it was there to teach us that the fire in one’s soul should be understated; it should burn within, but show nothing on the outside.
Our own hearts are hearths, the altars upon which spiritual fires can be ignited and kept burning. Even little letters and little words can remind us, when we pay close attention. What an apt lesson for this Shabbat, Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath just before Passover, which ushered in our freedom to fulfill our spiritual destinies.
“Becoming a Kingdom of Priests and a Holy People – Learning to Love Leviticus”
By Rabbi Anne Brener
I learned to love Leviticus when I was working at Metivta in the 1990’s. At Reb Jonathan’s invitation, Ellen Winer, Judith Riven and I started the Jewish Healing Center at Metivta.
There is a story in the Talmud, which tells of a visit to the ruins of the Temple by Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakki and his student Rabbi Yehoshua, who lived in the time following the destruction of the Temple. “Woe to us,” said Rabbi Yehoshua, “for the place that atones for the sins of our people has been destroyed.” “No.” says his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakki. “God no longer wants sacrifice. God wants acts of loving-kindness. These acts of loving-kindness will now atone for our sins.”
What is the connection between the sacrifices of the Temple and the acts of loving-kindness, such as those that we performed at the Metivta healing center? How does the intention of sacrifice relate to such earthly practices as visiting the sick or comforting the bereaved? In order to understand this connection, we need an understanding of sacrifice that fits both instances.
As you know, the Hebrew word for sacrifice means, “Bringing close or drawing near.”
to approach, to come nearer, so as to create a close relationship with someone. Therefore, one who brings a sacrifice should come in closer relationship to God.
The Book of Leviticus, which used to be called, Torat Kohanim, the teachings or the rituals of the priests, can be seen as a manual for insuring that closeness.
Reb Jonathan taught us that when the temple stood, it was the place (HaMakom) where God resided. But that when the temple was destroyed, HaMakom/God took up residence in other dimensions: Place, Time, and Soul.
When we meditate, we build a residence for God, B’kirbi (inside ourselves) in the dimension of Soul, just as we do when we care for others, and God dwells in the shared place within and between us. Let’s look at how the spiritual technology of the Temple, that we read about today, the sacrifices, transfer into this dimension of soul.
Moshe Halberstal speaks first of the parallel understandings of sacrifice. The Biblically prescribed sacrifices overseen by the priests were a:
…gift… From humans to God…. Involv[ing] an object, usually an animal… transferred from the human to the divine realm.
His second definition would speak to that which is given by today’s caregivers:
Giving up a vital interest for a higher cause. [like time or comfort]
The gift carried “b’kirbi”/within ourselves could be seen as the equivalent of the sacrifice/“korbon” that was brought by others who wished to “l’hkriv” come closer to God. Each of the Hebrew words in the previous sentence has the root “KRB.” This might indicate that the inner experience could be a parallel or a mirror for the material offerings brought as sacrifices to the Temple.
We might then see sacrifice as a gift of self whether it is material or personal: whether it is the gift (korbon) of a carefully raised and nurtured goat brought to the Temple on a pilgrimage festival or b’kirbi coming from the gut, the gift of precious time spent visiting the sick or preparing the dead for burial.
The ancients “drew near” by bringing first fruits to the Temple in gratitude or a dove or goat as atonement for an infraction. Today’s chaplains or Caring Community members “draw near” by reaching out to visit someone who is sick or to comfort the mourner. Both create a sacred bond that draws near the one who gives and the one who receives. In the Temple, it was with God. Today the connection is with the part of God that dwells in the other.
These parallel experiences reveal the lived experience of Jewish spiritual practice, which have transcended the paradigm shift from Temple based religious cult to a modern religion lived in community.
by Rabbi David Kasher
It is not difficult to come up with a connection between Passover and Parshat Tzav. For it is here in Leviticus, deep in the arcane laws of the priestly sacrifices, that we reencounter a substance familiar to us from the Exodus. Every day in the Temple, we read, there were both animal sacrifices and grain sacrifices. The most basic form of the latter – the Minkhah – was partially burnt on the altar, and then the remainder was eaten by the priests, as follows:
It shall be eaten as matzah, in the holy place; they shall eat it in the courtyard of the Tent of Meeting. It shall not be baked with leaven… (Leviticus 6:9-10)
מַצּוֹת תֵּאָכֵל בְּמָקוֹם קָדֹשׁ, בַּחֲצַר אֹהֶל-מוֹעֵד יֹאכְלוּהָ. לֹא תֵאָפֶה חָמֵץ
Matzah, the famous unleavened bread that was both the hastily prepared travel food during the actual departure from Egypt, and then later consecrated as the central memorial ritual of Passover, throughout the generations:
For seven days, you shall eat matzah, after removing all leaven from your house on the first day. (Exodus 12:15)
שִׁבְעַת יָמִים, מַצּוֹת תֹּאכֵלוּ–אַךְ בַּיּוֹם הָרִאשׁוֹן, תַּשְׁבִּיתוּ שְּׂאֹר מִבָּתֵּיכֶם
We find this unique injunction to eat unleavened bread only in these two contexts: Passover and the Temple. And so, we must ask, what is the connection between the two? What is the reason for eating matzah instead of regular bread?
On Passover, the symbolism of Matzah is well established. We have already mentioned the reminder of the haste with which we left Egypt. To that we might add that matzah is referred to, first in the Book of Deuteronomy (16:3) and later in the Haggadah itself, as “the bread of affliction.” That is, matzah is meant to be a poorer form of bread, a reminder of the general affliction of slavery, and how we ate what we could to survive.
The problem is that neither of these associations seems relevant to the matzah of the Temple. Certainly the sacrifices were not meant to be carried out hastily, nor are the priests told to eat in the same kind of rushed manner of the Exodus. Neither was the food of the priest meant to be of poor quality; just the opposite, in fact – we are many times instructed to bring our very choicest animals and grains as offerings.
Instead, a shared meaning can be drawn from the spiritual symbolism of matzah and bread that has been developed over centuries of interpretation, but begins with this statement in the Talmud:
Rabbi Alexandri, when he finished his daily prayer, would say following: ‘Master of the World, it is revealed and known to You that our will is to perform Your will. And what is it that prevents us? The yeast in the dough. (Berachot 17a)
ר’ אלכסנדרי בתר דמצלי אמר הכי רבון העולמים גלוי וידוע לפניך שרצוננו לעשות רצונך ומי מעכב שאור שבעיסה
In this schema, the richness of fully-baked bread represents the indulgence and laziness of self-gratification. Rashi’s commentary immediately takes this metaphor and makes it explicit:
the yeast in the dough – this is the evil desire in our hearts, that “leavens” us.
שאור שבעיסה – יצר הרע שבלבבנו המחמיצנו
If bread represents selfish desire, then matzah becomes a symbol of self-restraint, humility, and sacrifice, a willingness to live modestly in the service of God. Just as our ancestors were forced to survive on the bread of affliction, so we control our desires once a year and make do with less, as a reminder that none of our freedoms should be taken for granted, that everything we have comes from God.
This conception of matzah fits very well in the Temple, for who have more fully devoted themselves to Divine service than the priests? They eat matzah regularly, then, as a way of humbling themselves and curbing their own desires as they perform the work of the community. That symbolism then extends to us all, as our communal sacrifices are rendered into the food we know from Passover. The whole system of grain offerings in the Temple, then, becomes a daily exercise in self-abnegation.
There is, however, one glaring exception. On the Shavuot holiday that both celebrates the harvest and commemorates the giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai, the grain offering is very different than what we have seen so far:
You shall bring from your settlements two loaves of bread as an elevation offering; each shall be made of two-tenths of a measure of choice flour, baked after leavening, as first fruits to the Lord. (Leviticus 23:17)
מִמּוֹשְׁבֹתֵיכֶם תָּבִיאּוּ לֶחֶם תְּנוּפָה, שְׁתַּיִם שְׁנֵי עֶשְׂרֹנִים–סֹלֶת תִּהְיֶינָה, חָמֵץ תֵּאָפֶינָה: בִּכּוּרִים, לַה
This time it is bread, fully leavened and baked, that we offer to God. Of course, this makes sense in the agricultural cycle. We are thanking God for the successful growth of the grains that were planted in the spring – what better way than using those grains to bake bread?
But what has happened to the idea that bread is a symbol of evil desires? Why are we commanded to bring bread upon the altar on this occasion, after being so specifically instructed not to bake bread with leaven in previous grain offerings? If matzah is meant represent our self-control, shouldn’t we use it in all the sacrifices? Matzah is still grain-based after all; surely we could have celebrated the harvest with it as well.
The Kli Yakar, Rabbi Shlomo Ephraim Lunschitz of 16th century Prague, notices this discrepancy and offers a bold suggestion as to why Shavuot, the holiday of receiving the Torah, invokes a fundamentally different type of spirit than the one we had on Passover:
Through the sacrifices, a person sacrifices his desire… That is why the Minkhah offering has no leaven in it. However, the two loaves of bread on Shavuot are specifically leavened, because if not for the evil desire we would not need the Torah… Yet the existence of the evil desire is also essential, for without it, a person would never build a house or marry a woman. But in a place of Torah we need not worry that we will go too far, for the Torah regulates it.
ע”י זביחת הקרבן האדם זובח יצרו… ע”כ גם המנחה באה נקיה מן השאור, אמנם ב’ הלחם של עצרת באו דוקא חמץ כי אלמלא היצה”ר לא היו התחתונים צריכין אל התורה… ועוד שמציאות היצה”ר הכרחי ואלמלא הוא לא בנה האדם בית ולא נשא אשה, ובמקום התורה אין לחוש שמא יפרוץ גדרו כי התורה תבלין אליו
Here, instead of negating desire, we acknowledge it, and even celebrate it. For although selfishness can be an obstacle to divine service, if we were to totally annihilate the self, we would never do anything meaningful in life. Without ambition, we would cease to create, to love, to learn. We would be humble servants of God – but nothing more.
The matzah of Passover is meant to bring us to a state of humility. But the danger of Passover Consciousness is that we become so devoted to divine service that we lose ourselves completely. Remembering what it is like to be a slave is important; actually being a slave is tragic.
The bread of Shavuot is meant to bring us to a state of passion. And hopefully, with the Torah, we can harness that passion, and direct it wisely. But the danger of Shavuot Consciousness is that we lose control, and become lost in ourselves. Desire is essential for human flourishing; but we can become slaves to our desires as well.
How do we find a balance between these two states of being? How do we cool our desire without quenching our fire?
There is one other type of grain sacrifice, also mentioned here in Parshat Tzav, that seems to be attempting just such a balance:
If one brings a gratitude offering, he should bring, together with the sacrifice of gratitude, matzah spread with oil… along with loaves of leavened bread… Out of this he shall offer one of each kind as a gift to the Lord. (Leviticus 7:12-14)
אִם עַל-תּוֹדָה, יַקְרִיבֶנּוּ–וְהִקְרִיב עַל-זֶבַח הַתּוֹדָה חַלּוֹת מַצּוֹת בְּלוּלֹת בַּשֶּׁמֶן… עַל-חַלֹּת לֶחֶם חָמֵץ… וְהִקְרִיב מִמֶּנּוּ אֶחָד מִכָּל-קָרְבָּן,תְּרוּמָה לַה.
The gratitude offering, the ‘Korban Todah’ – brought by someone who has experienced a personal triumph – is unique in including both matzah and leavened bread. This is a strange mixing of symbols. Which side of our humanity is being called upon here – our humility or our desire? As we give thanks, do we recognize our smallness or our greatness? Is the gratitude offering an expression of Passover Consciousness or Shavuot Consciousness?
But of course, that is just the point – it is both. We are celebrating our personal achievements – our victories, our successes, the fulfillment of our desires. But we are also remembering that we could not have done any of it without God’s help, and that our own abundance must therefore be shared with those who are still hungry.
The taste of bread and matzah together is the awareness that we have everything but we could have had nothing. This awakens in us a third type of consciousness, one which requires us to feel simultaneously great and small, rich and poor, free and enslaved. And the name for this paradoxical feeling is ‘gratitude.’
From Rabbi David Kasher
FOUR LINKS IN A CHAIN – Parshat Tzav
Let me be honest, here. Tzav is not the easiest parsha to write about.
First of all, its subject matter consists almost entirely of animal sacrifice – not necessarily the most relevant material for a contemporary reader. On top of that, we really get taken into the gory details – burning fat and splattering blood – which can make for a rather unpleasant read. But if all that weren’t challenging enough, Parshat Tzav is essentially just a recapitulation of what we’ve just read in last week’s parsha, Vayikra. Last week we heard all about the burnt offering, the meal offering, the well-being offering, and the sin offering. If we wanted to talk about them, we could have done it then. But here we are, this week, touring through it all again, only this time with even more details about how they were prepared. So, along with all its difficult content, this parsha is repetitive to boot!
There is, however, at least one unique thing that shows up in Parshat Tzav: a shalshelet.
The shalshelet, which literally means “chain,” is one of 26 cantillation marks, or ‘ta’amim,’ the notations that accent the words of the Torah and indicate how they are to be chanted during a public reading. Like little accompanying musical notes, every word of the Torah has one, and the particular sound assigned to each word is standard, well-established by tradition. The function of these notes may have simply been to create a more enjoyable listening experience, or they may have been musical cues to help people remember the text and accent it properly, in a world that relied more on oral transmission.
There are some theories that suggest that these various “tropes” are also intended to add meaning to the text itself, to lend a particular kind of emphasis or feeling to the syntax of the word itself, much as a soundtrack might add drama to a movie sequence. Not everyone agrees that this kind of interpretation is valid for every single sound on every single word, however. It’s hard to imagine the same note carrying the same meaning every one of the thousands of times it is used.
But when it comes to the shalshelet, one is more inclined than usual to wonder what it is meant to communicate, and why it was chosen as the note for its particular word. That is true for two reasons. One is simply because the shalshelet is one of the rarest cantillation marks of all: there are only four in the entire Torah! So when one of them appears, its placement seems deliberate.
The other reason the shalshelet seems so significant is that it has a very distinct sound. Whereas most of the other ta’amim are short sounds, made up of no more than a few notes, the shalshelet is around 30 notes long. So when we hear this “chain” of three rising and falling wails, our ears perk up, and we cannot help but ask: what is happening here?
The trouble with that question, here in Parshat Tzav, is that our shalshelet appears in the middle of a fairly ordinary line, on a word that seems relatively insignificant:
[Moses] brought forward the second ram, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, and it was slaughtered. (Leviticus 8:22-23)
This is a moment from the ceremony in which Aaron is being inaugurated as the High Priest. And the word that carries the shalshelet is the last one here, ‘slaughtered’ – (וישחט). What are we supposed to make of this? It doesn’t seem like such an important moment. And ‘slaughter’ is not such an unusual word in the Book of Leviticus – which is full of animal sacrifice, after all.
And yet, this is the only shalshelet in all of Leviticus. So something here is being emphasized, something that we’re being asked to pay attention to. What is the shalshelet trying to tell us?
One way of answering that question is to look at the other three appearances of the shalshelet in the Torah – all of which, interestingly, are in the Book of Genesis. If we can detect a theme that they all share, perhaps then we can figure out how that theme might be read back into this moment in our parsha.
1. Let’s begin with the first shalshelet, which appears in the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. These entire cities are doomed to be destroyed by God for their wickedness, but two angels come to Lot’s house and offer to take him and his family away, and spare them from the devastation. Seems like a no-brainer, right? But Lot isn’t so sure what he wants to do:
As dawn broke, the angels urged Lot on, saying, “Up, take your wife and your two daughters, lest you be swept away because of the iniquity of the city.” Still, he lingered. So the men grabbed his hand, and the hands of his wife and his two daughters – for the Lord had mercy on them – and brought him outside of the city. (Genesis 19:15-16)
The shalshelet appears above the word that is translated here as “he lingered,” va-yitmama (ויתמהמה). But the word doesn’t precisely mean “to linger” so much as “to question,” or “to be unsure” – building on the word for “what” in Hebrew – ma (מה)- it is as if Lot is asking, “what, what, what should I do?” So why was he so uncertain? What was holding him back?
Rashi tells us, “He wanted to save his money,” a foolish and crude impulse in the midst of imminent danger. The Seforno gives Lot a more generous interpretation, saying that he was simply stunned, paralyzed by fear.
Whatever was going on in Lot’s head, the shalshelet here really draws out the moment of equivocation, of panicked uncertainty. It amplifies the true meaning of the word itself, va-yitmama, “and he was unsure.”
And so, in return, that word will come to inform our understanding of every later appearance of the shalshelet. Shlomo Carlebach once said, the first time something appears in the Torah, “that’s the headquarters.” He meant that the first usage of any word in the Torah sets a paradigm, and gives us a sense of how to interpret that word in every later appearance. The same rule might also be applied to Torah trope: the first shalshelet, then, would set a paradigm for us, and then infuse all of the later appearances with this theme of ambivalence. And indeed, that seems to hold true.
2. The second shalshelet comes in the story of Abraham’s servant, who has been sent on a mission to find a wife for Abraham’s son Isaac. Upon arriving at his destination, he begins by offering a simple prayer:
And he said, “O Lord, God of my master Abraham, grant me good fortune this day, and deal graciously with my master Abraham…” (Gen. 24:12)
He then goes on to request that God send his way the right woman for Isaac. It seems like the sincere plea of a humble servant on behalf of his beloved master.
And yet, there is a shalshelet above the first phrase, ‘va-yomar,’ (ויאמר) “And he said” – So the commentators begin to wonder, was there a note of ambivalence in this prayer?Was there something that Abraham’s servant was lingering on, that kept him from fully devoting himself to the task at hand? Rashi, again, supplies us with a possible ulterior motive:
Eliezer had a daughter, and he was searching to find a pretext, so that Abraham would tell him to turn to himself, to marry his own daughter to Isaac.
In this reading, Abraham’s servant Eliezer hesitated, even in the moment of praying to find a wife for Isaac, because the truth is, he was hoping that he would not find a suitable wife out there, and that Abraham would turn to his daughter, and thereby his family would participate in the divine covenant – not to mention the wealth of Abraham’s inheritance.
Perhaps this read sounds a little forced, like the commentators are looking for a back story when there isn’t one, because they want to maintain this theme of ambivalence. But consider this earlier description of Abraham’s servant, back before Abraham even had a son:
Oh Lord God, what can You give me? I am going to be childless, and the one in charge of my household is Eliezer of Damascus!,’ Abram said, ‘Since you have given me no offspring, my steward will be my heir!’ (Gen. 15:2)
So it seems that this chief servant was, in fact, once next in line to inherit Abraham. And if he coveted that inheritance, the birth of Isaac would have ruined that for him. Now his only chance to get back into the line of inheritance would be to marry a child of his own to Isaac, and thereby merge the two families.
So now when Abraham calls upon his servant and asks him to find a wife for Isaac from Abraham’s homeland…Eliezer must be conflicted. On the one hand, he wants to serve his master faithfully, as he has always done. But on the other hand, success in his mission will shut him out of the inheritance forever.
He summons the resolve to do right by Abraham, to sublimate his own desires and carry out his assigned task. He even attempts a prayer that he will be successful in his search. But as he opens his lips to ask God to help him do this thing he does not want to do, he hesitates, and his voice quivers. And the sound of that quivering hesitation is a shalshelet.
3. The last of the three shalshelot (that’s the plural) in the Book of Genesis exposes a hint of ambivalence in what is often read as a straightforward act of righteousness. Joseph has been sold into slavery in Egypt and becomes the chief butler in the house of a nobleman. Tensions begin to build, however, when the nobleman’s wife takes a liking to Joseph and tries to seduce him. But Joseph holds fast to his principles:
He refused, and said to his master’s wife, “Look, my master gives no thought to me, and all he owns he has placed in my hands. He wields no more authority in this house than I, and he has withheld nothing from me except for you, for you are his wife. How then could I do this most wicked thing, and sin before God?” (Gen. 39:8-9)
Joseph is so honorable, so pious, so totally in control of his impulses. It’s all very impressive. Except that there, hovering above that first word, ‘vayimaein’ (וימאן) “he refused,” what should we find but a shalshelet. That note of uncertainty.
He refused, yes. But it wasn’t easy. He spurned her advances, but a part of him wanted badly to give in. Here’s Rashi, once again, giving us the psychological conflict hiding behind a cool exterior:
..one opinion is that he came in to ‘take care of his needs’ with her, but then, the image of his father appeared before him.
Rashi actually takes us a step further, even. Joseph wasn’t just tempted to give in to his lust, he was fully intending to. Only the sudden memory of his father, looking down at him disapprovingly, could shake him loose from his desires. He refused, finally, but it took all he had. He was caught in a moment of total inner conflict, and only barely managed to escape on the side of righteousness. And again, the shalshelet is there to give voice to the struggle.
4. So now, finally, we return to our shalshelet, the only other shalshelet in the Torah. We have seen that the shalshelet has, through a series of narrative twists and turns, come to be understood as the sign of ambivalence, the sound of equivocation. It served this purpose well in three dramatic moments in the gripping narrative of Genesis. But remember, we are now back in Leviticus, mired in a swamp of details and rituals. Remember that our shalshelet stands above the word for “slaughter,” in just one of one many, many animal sacrifices. What kind of uneasiness could it represent here? Who exactly is it that should be uncertain of what he is doing?
Some have suggested it is Moses who is hesitating, and that what he is reluctant to perform is the inauguration of his brother. And why? Because Moses wanted to be the high priest himself! Various rabbinic teachings construct the theory that Moses was at first intended for the priesthood, but it was taken away from him when he resisted God’s mission to go back to Egypt, and handed over to Aaron. (Vayikra Rabba 11:6; Talmud, Zevachim 102a) So now that Moses has to oversee the appointment he was supposed to have, it fills him with jealousy, and he does it only reluctantly.
Others insinuate that no, it was Aaron who was reluctant, uneasy taking on a role that presumably belonged to his brother. That is why Rashi, in the opening of our chapter, which begins with God commanding Moses to “Take Aaron and his sons…”, understands this to mean:
Take him with words, and persuade him.
Aaron had to be persuaded to take the job in this reading, and so now that the anointment is being performed, the shalshelet is there to alert us to his hesitancy, his discomfort with the proceedings.
Perhaps these hidden motivations were there in Moses, or in Aaron. Perhaps not. But it is hard to attribute the shalshelet to them. Because in all the other shalshelot we have seen, the sound accentuates the ambivalence in the particular action of a particular actor. Lot lingered. Eliezer prayed. Joseph refused.
But here the shalshelet is not there above Moses’ bringing of the ram, nor of Aaron’s laying his hands on the ram. It is over the slaughter itself. It’s not even clear who did the slaughtering. Nor is slaughter the action that represents Moses’s transfer of authority or Aaron’s receiving it. It is simply the most basic action that constitutes the ritual of animal sacrifice.
It seems reasonable to conclude, then, that the ambivalence is over the act of slaughter itself. The killing of an innocent animal to atone for our sins. Is this really just? Is it really holy? Were we meant to use other living creatures to satisfy our religious needs?
Maybe. God commands it, after all. The commentators may debate whether or not this is an ideal form of worship, but for now, here it is in black and white, all through Leviticus. So the priests perform it. And we read about it every year. It is, undeniably, a part of our tradition.
But maybe we shouldn’t read through it all so confidently. Maybe we shouldn’t be so sure that this is what God really wants. We should think twice before we bring a ram to the slaughter. And we should all feel some doubt, some uneasiness, some hesitation, when we read about the death of these animals. How did it come to this? What have we done so wrong that the life of another creature is required to atone for our sins?
When the priest put the knife to the neck of that ram, and began to pull the blade, what sound came out of its helpless throat? I’ll bet it sounded something like the long wail of a shalshelet.
“The Priestly Work”
By Dr. Tamar Frankiel, Provost
This week’s parsha, the second in the book of Vayikra (Leviticus), summarizes the priestly sanctification into their roles. “Command them,” the parsha begins – command Aaron and his sons to assume these roles and perform their duties of making various kinds of offerings.
The Jewish people have been set aside as a “kingdom of priests” and a “holy nation,” but only one segment has these specific priestly roles.
Or is that true? Are these roles also a model for all of us?
I would suggest that the priestly work is a focused lens, a microcosm. We learn from our commentators that the mishkan is a microcosm of the Creation as outlined in Genesis. What if we understand that the priests’ detailed work is another microcosm, of what it is to work, to perform avodah, to serve?
The classic definition of avodah after the Temple’s destruction is prayer: As the priests had their fixed rituals, we have our siddur and prayer services that bring us near to serve God – although the rabbis ask, does God need our prayers?
We sometimes forget that the kohanim were not just serving God, perhaps not even primarily serving God. As our rabbis would say, “What need has God of chickens and goats?” They were serving people – serving the rest of the Jewish community. They served as intermediaries to bring people near – people who came with anxiety, fear, brokenness, asking for forgiveness and reconciliation, as well as expressing joy and gratitude.
Why the intermediaries? Because the priests learned how to sanctify space and time, primarily by paying attention to detail. As an analogy, think of what happens when we set a table for a special meal. The tablecloth and napkins are chosen, the dinnerware carefully set out, along with flowers, wine, and perhaps some graceful décor. The room takes on a new aura, a sense of anticipation grows; we look forward to surprise or celebration.
Normal routine isn’t like that. The everyday is a mere generalization, a round of similar events, where we hardly notice this very same room when we walk through it. We live in a fog.
The priestly work is to cut through the fog. Not only the fog of mindlessness, but also the fog created by anxiety, suffering, brokenness, and fear. Re-reading parts of Victor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning a few days ago, I was struck by a powerful and terrible image he used. Suffering, he said, is like pumping gas into a room: it will diffuse and fill all the space in the room. The only thing that stops it is if you can seal off a part of the room against it.
A terrible image, considering that he was in a concentration camp — and we know about sealed rooms too.
Yet Frankl goes on to describe what the inmates did in the midst of their horrendous suffering: They would gather quietly in small circles and someone would recite prayers or poetry. Or they would make jokes; occasionally they would sing. There was some counter-movement, a pushback against the deadening reality of their world.
This is part of the priestly role we play in the world – creating a space that seals us off temporarily from the smothering, suffocating negativity of the world. We do this in prayer; we do it on Shabbat; we do it in honoring the dead, and in celebrating new life.
But we can also play this role on a daily basis, like priests accepting and attending to the offerings of the Temple. We can do it by paying careful attention to those who want to come near, who want to reveal their brokenness, who seek forgiveness and reconciliation. We can set the table expectantly, and be available to midwife the gift of the heart. This too is avodah.
From the Maqam Project</strong>
From Rabbi Gershon Winkler
The Sacrifice of Sacrifice
A Teaching from Gershon…
Recently, I was standing in line at Customer Services in Target to return some birthday gifts, when I noticed that right there in front of me stood God, waiting ever so patiently as usual and absent any sign of urgency or irritation. I was appalled. What in the world was God doing in line at Customer Services in Target?
“Excuse me,” I said. “But with all due respect, God, why are you here?”
God turned around and smiled lovingly: “I am here for the same reason you are, my child.”
“You are returning a gift?”
“Actually, more gifts than you can mortally imagine, my child.”
“I don’t understand.”
“Well, like I told Isaiah, ‘My thoughts are not like your thoughts, and my ways are not like your ways.'”
There was a pause for what seemed like an eternity.
“You see,” God began to explain, “for thousands of years people have been bringing me gifts of all sorts, from ritually-sacrificed animals to meal and flour offerings and aromatic incense offerings, sometimes even their own children. And, to tell you the truth, I have no interest in any of these gifts. They just don’t resonate with me. They are not at all congruent with my intent for Creation. So, finally, after so many thousands of years, humans have come up with the revolutionary idea of returning unwanted gifts either for a refund or an exchange. So here I am.”
“But, if I may be so bold to ask – didn’t you instruct our ancestors in the desert around offering sacrifices? And in such arduous detail, yet!”
“Did you read that interview I gave Isaiah where I told him that – on the contrary – I have neither the need or desire for sacrifices?” (Isaiah 1:1-7).
“Yes, I am familiar with that interview, but, again, with all due respect, divine and otherwise, you did give us all those instructions around offering them! It says so in the Torah, all across the length and breadth of it!”
“Ah, that…. Pure semantics, my boy, pure semantics. That was not about sacrifice. That was about connection. That was about the very opposite of sacrifice in the way most humans have understood the concept. My commandments around what you call ‘the sacrifices’ was about sacrificing sacrifices, doing away altogether with the notion that you or any other mortal can possibly know what it is that I really want, let alone am. Until I issued those instructions, people would offer up to me what they presumed to be in harmony with my will, what they presumed was what I’d wanted. And I ended up with all these gifts I am schlepping here on line at Target, having to return them in exchange for what I had preferred all along. In other words, this is precisely why my instructions to Moses around the altar and the sacrificial rites were so laboriously detailed and specific, right down to content, volume, measurement and dimension, each detail serving as both, a clue to my deepest intent and will for Creation, and a pathway to the portals that lead to the intimacy I desire with all of you. That is the gift I want. If gifting someone was solely about whatever your heart desired, it wouldn’t be a gift for the other but a projection of yourself upon the other, an assumption – arrogant at best – about the nature of the other. It would not be so much about what it is they desire but more about what it is that you desire for them. And did I not ask in the beginning of the Ten Commandments that you do not mask your finite, mortal assumptions about me upon my faceless face?”
“But what about Abel and Noah and Abraham and Jacob and so many others who lived long before you gave us those details? You seemed to enjoy and accept their sacrifices, and I don’t see any of their gifts in your bundle.”
“You need to understand, boytchik, that I have no personal need for any of this, for anything you can possibly think of giving me, since I created it all. If I were hungry, I can chow down a couple of supernovas or a dinosaur or two. I don’t need you to feed me with your sacrifices (Psalms 50:7-15). Right? If everything that exists is mine, if I made everything, what can you possibly give me? So it is not the nature of the sacrifice that means anything to me but rather the nature of the gesture behind the sacrifice. If you re-read your Torah, you will see how it is written that I turned first to Abel and only then to his sacrifice. In other words, I first checked out Abel’s intention, where his heart was at in bringing his offering, to begin with, before accepting his sacrifice (Genesis 4:4). The sacrifice itself is unacceptable if the intent is unacceptable, or if the character and action of the person bringing the sacrifice is unacceptable. That is why I did not accept Cain’s sacrifice. It is sort of like the difference between a man giving his beloved a Valentine’s card but doing so not on Valentine’s day, not because it is Valentine’s day or any other occasion that calls for a gift, but rather purely as a gesture of acknowledgment of his desire and love and appreciation of her. On Valentine’s Day itself, she looks into his eyes and can see only as far as Valentine. On her birthday, she looks into his eyes and can see only as far as Birthday. On Mother’s Day, she looks into his eyes and can see only as far as Mother’s Day. But when he brings her flowers absent any particular occasion, simply because – then, she looks into his eyes and can see all the way to his heart, to his love, all the way to the purity, the sincerity of his gesture, so that the gift itself is dispensable, moot, against the backdrop of what is to her far more important, which is his love and appreciation of her and how precious she is to him. So, to answer your question –No, the early ancestors did not yet have those very specific instructions regarding the how-to’s of ritual sacrifice so redundantly articulated in the Book of Leviticus. And they did not need to because of where they were at in their hearts and intents when they offered them. Their gestures were for me like sweet aromas are to you” (Genesis 8:21).”
God noticed that I was still not getting it.
“Let me give you two scenarios. Scenario One: you come home from a hard day’s work and your beloved makes you a nice dinner. You thank her, or him, and you eat it, but you don’t fully enjoy it because you weren’t really in the mood for meatloaf that night. But it’s okay. The gesture was appreciated, and although she cooks you dinner every night, as part of her routine, you still hope she’s thinking about you when she prepares it, or at least some of the time. Scenario Two: you come home from a hard day’s work and your beloved says, ‘I love you so much, honey, and I want to make you something very special for dinner tomorrow. So please write down for me specific instructions regarding your very own choice of the choicest foods you love most, and how you would prefer that I prepare it, what kinds of spices, how well-done you want me to cook it, and so on and so forth.’ See the difference yet? In the first scenario, your beloved prepares and gifts you with what she presumes you like, and that is more about her own assumptions about who you are and what you like. In the second scenario, your beloved sacrifices her judgments around what to give you and steps outside the bounds of her subjective assumptions and personal convenience to honor the otherness of you. And her desire and capacity to gift to you in this way is made possible only by virtue of your detailed instructions.”
I was so inspired by this newfound understanding of the deeper intent behind the Torah’s detailed details around the sacrificial rites that I became overwhelmed with a degree of elation I hadn’t felt since my stroke in ’94. I thought maybe this was a good time to ask for a couple of million bucks while I had God’s attention.
“God, all wealth and all glory is in your hands. I ask not for any glory, but can you please spare a …? God? Hello? Hashem? Elo’heem! El Shaddai! Hello?!”
God had vanished, and left behind all of the returned gifts in a nearby bin marked: “Clearance.”
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Giving thanks in the present moment: parashat Tzav
We read in this week’s portion that one who offers a korban for the purpose of thanksgiving must eat that offering on the day when it is offered.
Korban: this is the Hebrew word we translate as “sacrifice.” But the root connotes not giving-up but drawing-near.
One who seeks to draw-near to God for the purpose of thanksgiving must eat that offering on the day when it is offered.
Drawing-near to God: we can understand this yearning.
Thanksgiving: we can understand that outpouring.
But what can we make of the exhortation to eat the meat of the sacrifice on the day when it is offered, and not to set any of it aside until morning?
Perhaps this comes to teach us that one who seeks to draw-near to God for the purpose of saying thank You needs to be in the moment. Give thanks for what is, right now, and experience that thanksgiving wholly. Don’t hold some of it over until tomorrow: give yourself over to thanksgiving now.
And, a corollary: trust that tomorrow there will again be blessings in your life which merit the giving of thanks.
As I say every Friday morning in meditation: focus on the breath as it comes and goes. And when your mind inevitably drifts to something in the past, or something in the future, that’s okay; it’s what minds do. Just gently notice that, and on the next exhale let it go and return to right here, right now.
Drawing-near to God in thanksgiving seems to require that same kind of mindfulness, that same cultivated ability to be in the moment and to offer thanks from this moment. There is so much to be thankful for: right here, right now.
From Rav Kook
Tzav: Appreciating Boundaries
One type of offering brought in the Temple was the korban Todah, the Thanksgiving offering:
“This is the law of the Peace offering (Shelamim)… If offered as a thanksgiving offering, then it is presented along with unleavened loaves.” (Lev. 7:11-12)
Who brought this offering? The Talmud mentions several examples:
“Four need to give thanks: those who sail the seas, those who travel through deserts, the sick who are cured, and prisoners who are freed.” (Berachot 54b)
Why did the Sages choose these four situations as examples of individuals who need to publicly thank God?
Appreciation does not come naturally to us. The human soul is programmed to constantly strive for more, as it says, “The soul is never satisfied” (Ecc. 6:7). We look ahead, not behind. We are always trying to improve our lot, to experiment and discover new horizons. Thus it is more natural for us to take for granted than to take stock. Often we feel gratitude for what we have by way of contrast: only when we no longer have it, or hear of others who lack, do we begin to truly appreciate it.
Another consequence of the human characteristic to constantly strive for more is our tendency to challenge accepted rules. The testing of limits is particularly pronounced in transitional periods (two-year-olds in their passage from infancy to childhood, and teenagers in their passage from adolescence to adulthood). While this is necessary for personal growth, certain restrictions may only be ignored at great risk. Generally speaking, there are four types of boundaries that people, in their quest for independence, attempt to ignore. They suffer the results of rebelling against natural or moral limits, and their experiences provide a lesson to others.
The first group consists of those who attempt to defy the basic laws of nature that govern humanity. One example of this are those who abandon the land, risking their lives by sailing the seas. Outside of their natural habitat, they will come to appreciate the safety and normalcy of life on land.
The second group includes those who rebel against the laws of the state. Governmental rules help regulate communal life. Those who abandon the rule of law by escaping to the desert (or the frontier) will quickly learn to appreciate the necessity for law and order.
The third group is comprised those who ignore guidelines for personal health care. Their interests and desires override the need to attend to their physical needs. Only when they suffer from illness do they come to appreciate the importance of heeding the rules of health and hygiene.
The final group is made up those who, in their greed for unfettered freedom, reject the ethical laws of society. Their actions pose a threat to others in the community. They must be imprisoned to prevent them from harming others. Hopefully, they will come to the realization that it is better to settle for a limited freedom outside the walls of prison than no freedom at all.
These four types publicly give thanks — if they survive their folly! — and serve as an example to others to appreciate the natural, societal, physical, and moral boundaries that make life livable.
(Sapphire from the Land of Israel.Adapted from Ein Eyah II, p. 252)
Copyright © 2013 by Chanan Morrison
From Brian Yosef Schachter-Brooks
The Power of Preparation- Passover and Parshat Tzav
There are moments when our situation dictates our next move, and there is no ambiguity about what we must do. If there were a baby in the middle of the road, for example, it is clear we should rescue the baby. In such a moment, there is no leeway for weighing options, for considering which path to take. The path is clear, and the mind is wholly present in the task at hand. We might call this active presence- being totally present and committed in one’s action.
There is also a situation we might call passive presence, or receiving presence. This could be when you receive something or behold something so satisfying that there is no part of you that is left out of the experience; there is a sense of arrival. The present is not experienced as a stepping-stone to some other moment, but the present is IT. An example of this might be beholding something awesome in nature, or even drinking a glass of water when you are parched.
Ordinarily, these moments tend to be few. The aim of spiritual work, however, is to totally reorient yourself to become fully present in every moment, to connect deeply with reality as it presents itself now, always now, in this moment. To do this, we have to shift our perspective from mind and thought to the awareness behind mind and thought. Just as both the baby in the road and the satisfying experience automatically bring one to the fullness of the present beyond thought, so we must learn to bring ourselves fully to the present, even and especially in ordinary and mundane moments.
This is the hidden message in this week’s parsha, Tzav. Throughout the Torah, when G-d tells Moses to communicate something to the Israelites, it usually says, “G-d spoke to Moses saying, ‘speak to the Israelites…’”. In this case, rather than saying, “speak to the Israelites”, it says “command the Israelites”. That’s the meaning of the word Tzav- it is the command form of the word “command”. By saying, “command” rather than “speak”, it implies a sense of intensity, and calls the one commanded to a state of presence. To receive a “commandment” is different from receiving a “suggestion” or a “possibility”; the baby is in the road, and you must act.
However, the Torah then goes on to enumerate tedious details about certain ritual sacrifices. The subject matter is not even new; it is merely a continuation of last week’s parsha, which introduced the subject (see last week’s blog entry). Why is the special word tzav used in this context?
But this is the whole point. Much of our lives are spent with ordinary, repetitive things- the daily grind of keeping things moving. The ritual sacrifices are a metaphor for how to frame the ordinary: By bringing our awareness fully into each moment, the “ordinary” is transformed into something sacred. The word for sacrifice, korban, actually doesn’t mean sacrifice at all; it means “drawing near”. The “daily grind” becomes a way of drawing near to the Ultimate, for everything is part of the Ultimate. Once the mind ceases pulling us away from this moment, we can see this moment as an opportunity to awaken, to be a vessel for consciousness.
This is also the meaning of the instructions to “keep the fire on the altar burning all night” (Lev. 6:2). The “day” represents those special experiences and deeds that bring us to the sacred and the fullness of presence. The “night” represents the ordinary and mundane, when we tend to fall asleep in the spiritual sense. To “keep the fire burning” in the “night” means to transform the ordinary into a korban- into a sacred moment through the power of awareness.
This lesson is a powerful reminder as move into the preparation time for Pesakh (Passover). Preparing for Pesakh has a very mundane, detail-oriented aspect to it, involving going through your fridge and cabinets to find all the hameitz (foods made with wheat, oats, barley or spelt, except of course matzah) to either eliminate it or sell it. (Click here for info on traditional Pesakh preparations- and don’t let it freak you out! Even a little effort at whatever level you are comfortable can be very powerful). Often, this will reveal hidden dirtiness and inspire a deep cleaning of the house. The hameitz is a symbol for ego and separation from the present. The matzah, in its flatness and simplicity, represents full intimacy with the present and freedom from ego.
So what is the lesson? The ego craves something special. It wants to be impressed, and to impress. But preparing for Pesakh is an opportunity to embrace the mundane, to discover the sacred in the cleaning of kitchen muck. In surrendering to these mundane tasks and doing them not as drudgery but as “commandment”, as mitzvah, we open ourselves to receive the true and liberating power of Pesakh.
When you eat the matzah this Pesakh, may you taste the joy, sweetness and purity of real liberation, and may your liberation bring this world a step closer to a global awakening and healing.
Hag Samayakh! Good Shaabbiiiisss!
From Chaya Lester
Thursday Mar 29, 2012
Tzav: Making the Most of a Negative Thought
This week’s reading delves into finely detailed descriptions of the Tabernacle’s sacrifices. How do we understand and integrate these images of the ritualized blood and fire into our lives today? Where does this text meet our most intimate and personal lives?
One stunning example of a personalization of the priestly offerings is found in the 19th century commentary from the Sefat Emet on this week’s parsha. It takes as its starting point the theme of tending to the fire on the Tabernacle’s altar. The Torah reads, “A fire must always burn, it must not go out.” (Lev. 6:6). The Sefat Emet personalizes this continual fire as representative of the eternal flame of love for God that burns within each of our souls.
In an elegant Hassidic twist, he sees the injunction of “you must not let it (the fire) go out,” as not just a prohibition, but rather as a promise – a promise that this flame of love within each of us will not, can not, be extinguished. Our love of God is an essential birth-right, as constant as gravity, a flame that can never be quenched.
The Sefat Emet adds that each stray, distracting or negative thought that arises in our minds is an olah, a burnt-offering, that is meant to be consumed in this flame of love. As the Zohar says, “an evil thought is a burnt-offering upon its altar.”
In the Sefat Emet’s vision, we are each the consecreated priests whose sacred duty it is to have stray, debased and distracting thoughts! We are programmed to have negative thoughts so that we may take and bind them on an altar of God-consciousness and love. Our work as servants of the Most High is not that we should have only pure, God-focused thoughts, but that we are destined to have negative spirals of thinking. Our task is to actively engage those stray thoughts and bind them upon an inner-altar. The thoughts are consumed in the conflagrations of our connection to God. These lowest of thoughts become the most precious of offerings, morphed and redeemed in the flames of consciousness. This is our highest vocation and divine service.
In a beautiful moment of serendipity, one of my clients this week sat before me in anguish, lamenting over a negative and recurring thought that has been plaguing her. She is daily beset by an image of a photograph she had seen of her ex-boyfriend and his new girl-friend. She described how this vivid image literally rises up in her mind, overwhelming her with its persistance. Her description was a mirror-image of the teaching from the Sefat Emet where he links the ‘olah’, the ‘rising’ offering, to the rising up of negative thoughts. How fortuitious that we had on hand this teaching. The Sefat Emet offers us a model for a practical Torah-based tool for transforming negative thoughts into opportunities for sanctification.
Notice the next time you have a stray negative thought – whether it be an unfounded fear, an unproductive worry, an inappropriate desire, a caustic judgment. When this thought arises, don’t just brush it aside, but rather take a hold of it, the way you might take a hold of calf, a ram, a pigeon. Imagine that you are binding it and lifting it up as a most esteemed offering. In your mind’s eye, place the thought on the altar of your fiery and consuming love for God…on the altar of your trust that all things come from God and go to God. Remember that this thought has come to you not as a distraction or a curse, but as an opportunity for uplifting and sanctification. Do this every time a negative thought arises in you…for this is the priestly service that is yours and yours alone to perform.
God, with thirst for alchemy
And fist-fulls of compassion
Required of me
my most resilient obsession
to suit his royal self
with soot and ash
and smoky sleeves
A remembrance worn
Of that which we must
For the thing had long ended
But lest I lay with it
For the dreg of my days
It was demanded by edict
And Temple blaze
– a forgiving and practical blade –
sliced its hide with fiery tongue
inhaled its hulk
with longing lungs
consumed for me
The one thing I had worth weeping for
The one thing worth building altars for
The unblemished, unfinished,
long-haunted, long-hunted for
And yet the fire was forgiving
She, with a strong hand,
– sure as any alchemist
From stubborn flesh
to smoke and ash
A morph to silver cinder
And sweet nectar air
I watched its sudden shudder
shift and fade
watched the way
in streams of gray
it finally disappeared
Thankful for the altar made
And the smoke the thing became
With a prayer
that thus may all things
of thick resistance
Into supple smoke
And swift upwardly streams of heat
This offering, the alchemy
from which the parch
of God – and man –
From Rabbi Avram Davis
From Amerian Jewish World Service
Rachel Travis 5771
I have very distinct memories of standing in shul under my father’s tallit as a child, trying to peek through the weave of his woolen prayer shawl as the kohanim blessed the congregation. Later, these avuncular men schmoozed and ate herring with the rest of us, but in my mind, they retained an aura of holiness even in the social hall.
For millennia, the kohanim served as the spiritual pillars of the Jewish community, and large sections of Vayikra are dedicated to describing the kohanim’s service in the Tabernacle. Parshat Tzav, in particular, chronicles in precise detail the laws of various sacrifices, delineating step by step how the kohanim should conduct the holy service. The Ramban, a preeminent medieval rabbi and philosopher, teaches that the sacrifices and Temple service had a profound effect on the heavenly strata.1 They were crucial to the religious wellbeing of the Jewish people.
And yet, I cannot help but notice that the role of the priests as described in the parshah seems decidedly unglamorous. If anything, the job of the kohanim reads as repetitive, physical labor. Tasked with ensuring that the fire on the altar never goes out, the kohen kindles wood upon the altar every morning before offering the daily burnt sacrifice. Each day, dressed in his priestly garments, he shovels the smoldering ashes from the altar (the remains of the previous day’s offering, which has burned through the night), changes his clothing and takes the ashes outside of the camp.2 The kohen repeats the same assignments every day: lighting fires, slaughtering animals, preparing meal offerings, shoveling ashes, etc., etc. Each time I read this, I wonder how to reconcile the seeming discordance of these repetitive, mundane jobs with the incredible spiritual weight they carry.
This week, I discovered an insight into the kohanim’s service in an essay by the food journalist Michael Pollan. In “Why Bother,” Pollan frankly addresses issues of climate change. He wonders, when the magnitude of environmental problems seems to vastly outweigh the individual’s ability to effect change, should we even bother to try? If we’re really in the midst of a climate crisis, does it actually make a difference if you or I do something as banal as composting our detritus or switching out our light bulbs for more energy-efficient ones? Pollan answers quite eloquently that “the Big Problem is nothing more or less than the sum total of countless little everyday choices, most of them made by us.”3 By the same reasoning, the solution is the sum total of an opposite, more constructive, set of daily choices and actions. True change doesn’t result from dramatic, high-profile actions—one-time international summits or celebrity endorsements&mdashbut from the accumulation of many individuals’ quotidian acts.
The same lesson holds true for the kohanim’s service. In the abstract, their mission—to give the people an avenue through which to offer thanks to God, to express penitence for wrongdoing, and to communicate piety—seems almost unattainable. It is only though the accumulation of specific, focused, repetitive tasks that the kohanim can actually make a difference in the peoples’ spiritual lives. And though the implementation may appear downright gritty, the kohanim infuse even the most mundane elements of the service with intentionality and holiness.
Sometimes, global issues—gender inequality, water shortages, climate change and natural disasters, to name but a few—seem so overwhelming that we feel discouraged from taking any action at all. We wonder if we, as individuals, really have the ability to help solve such complicated problems. But the kohanim remind us that it is precisely through the accumulation of small, repetitive—and often the least glamorous—actions that we can have a true impact. Our charge, like that of the kohen, is to infuse these acts with meaning by making them a part of our daily routine and by viewing them as a piece of a larger goal. In that light, shoveling ash is a means of sustaining God’s spiritual abode, and maintaining a compost pile in our own backyards isn’t just dirty work; it’s a conscious effort to help build a better world.
Menachem Mendel Schneerson, the late Lubavitcher Rebbe, observes in his commentary on Vayikra that although the kohanim change their garments in between tasks, the same kohanim who carry shovelfuls of ash also serve in God’s presence. The Rebbe concludes that we, like the kohanim, should take pleasure in even the simple, physical chores, because they are part of the same pursuit of the greater good as more lofty work.4
This is not always an easy thing to accomplish; the most crucial tasks can also be the most boring or least prestigious. But if we make these acts part of what we do each day, they will become an integral part of our identities. We can recycle our waste, turn off the lights when we leave a room, read the news, call our elected officials, or give a few bucks to an important cause. Whatever it is we decide to do in service of building a better world, let’s do it again tomorrow, and next week, and next month—until it is truly part of who we are. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, that’s how we will “be the change [we] want to see in the world.”
1 As cited in Rabbi Yehudah Nachshoni. Studies in the Weekly Parashah. New York: Artscroll, 1989.
2 Vayikra 6: 1-6.
3 Pollan, Michael. “Why Bother?” The New York Times Magazine, 20 April 2008.
4 Sefer Vayikra with Commentary from Classic Rabbinic Texts and the Lubavitcher Rebbe. Ed. Chaim Miller. New York: Kol Menachem, 2004. p. 36.
Torah Reading for Week of March 13-19, 2011
“The Fire of Grief”
By Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW, AJRCA Professor of Ritual and Human Development
“This is the Torah of the burnt-offering…a fire must always burn on the altar; it may not go out.” (Lev 6:1:6). While Parshat Tzav speaks of the altar that was built in the Tabernacle, its words are also true for the altar in our heart. Spiritual practice enables us to keep alive that eternal light that burns in our souls, whose flame, Proverbs tells us, is the lamp of G-d.
But sometimes the light goes out.
When individuals grieve, they often discover that they have not only lost someone central to their lives. They have often lost their connection with G-d. They may find that the understanding of G-d that may have served them before they were initiated in the fires of loss, no longer seems like a safe refuge. “How could G-d have taken my child from me?” they ask. “What kind of G-d would have caused my father to suffer like that?” “Why didn’t G-d answer my prayers?” Such questions unloose a person’s spiritual moorings. Grieving becomes all the more complicated, giving rise to a free-floating anger that may erupt without warning.
Mourners may feel ashamed by these feelings and repress them, causing them to carry molten lava in their broken hearts; a blazing force yearning for release and vulnerable to the slightest triggers. They may appear irrational and even dangerous to others, often the very others who most want to comfort them. It may cause those would-be comforters to keep their distance rather than being singed by the flaming anger of grief.
I believe that this rage is not what it appears to be. I believe that this burning heartache is holy. It is life-energy trying to re-assert itself after the passion for living has been tamped down by sorrow. What other emotion but anger can pierce the energetic iceberg of early grief’s heaviness that so often feels like clinical depression?
The Sfat Emet, as relayed to us through Rabbi Arthur Green, reminds us that “the two most basic properties of fire, [are] to warm and to burn.” He challenges us to attach those properties to the two wings of prayer, namely love and awe. How can the mourner harness his or her anger and bind it to prayer in an effort to reclaim passion for warmth and healing, while protecting his/her self and others from the dangers of fire? Anger must be re-framed as a holy force, a necessary part of bereavement, as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross has taught in her “Five Stages of Grief.” Speaking anger then becomes a form of prayer. Anger becomes an alchemical force, providing the fire of transformation, helping the mourner to define him/herself and set boundaries in order to separate from the past and begin to embrace a new reality.
Anger also helps to transform the relationship to G-d. With rage, the mourner confronts the pediatric understanding of G-d as a kind of spiritual vending machine- A Great Father, who rewards good and punishes bad. Then, as the flames become less fierce, the mourner realizes that that wasn’t G-d at all. G-d is in the nourishing warmth of a controlled flame. G-d is in the life energy that moves him/her to again embrace life and return to the cultivation of the personal gardens both real and metaphorical. Let us have patience with anger, our own and that of others, so that it can be harnessed as a tool of spiritual growth.
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
RED (TZAV) 2009
Moshe’s bloodied finger
paints slow lines
along Aaron’s ear
his thumb, his foot
the shock of red
vivid and seeping
like what wells
behind your eye’s cradle
diagnoses press in
what would I sacrifice
to heal you
what wouldn’t I
From Rav DovBer Pinson
Week’s Energy for Parshas Tzav
Rav DovBer Pinson
Consistency and Perseverence
The Torah reading this week, which continues on the theme of offerings, begins with the word Tzav/command. Hashem is instructing the people of Israel. Rather than the more oft used word, Daber/speak, or Emor/say, the word Tzav/command is used here.
When a person is told something, they often forget who it was that told them that thing. However when a person is acting on another’s explicit command, or instruction, the action that they are doing is continuously rooted in an awareness of the ‘commander’.
When the temple stood, and offerings were brought, it was a common practice to bring an offering for a special occasion, such as an offering of gratitude (korban todah) or an offering of atonement (korban chatos.) However, there were also routine offerings that were brought on a daily basis and all of these offerings were placed on the very same altar, using the same fire, the ‘esh tamid’.
In this week’s reading, it speaks of this fire, and the verse says; “Eish tamid tukad al hamizbeach, lo tichbeh” / “An eternal flame shall burn upon the altar, it shall not be extinguished.” (6:6)
The verse seems to repeat itself – An eternal flame . . .Shall not be extinguished. Either one of these phrases would make it clear that the fire should remain lit constantly.
The message we are receiving here is the message of ‘tzav’ the command that keeps us in constant awareness of our ‘commander’. This is the teaching of consistency.
A flame that is eternal – that is constantly being fed, is one that will never be extinguished.
To bring an offering in a time of inspiration, when one is overwhelmed with remorse, or with gratitude, requires little effort. To bring a routine offering, day in and day out, with that same modicum of excitement and inspiration is where the hard work comes in. Yet all offerings, both unusual and routine, were brought on the same ‘eternal, constant’ flame.
The Week’s Energy
Consistency and PerseveranceThis week imbues us with the energy of constancy, consistency and perseverance.
The key to lasting success is perseverance – keeping at it, continuously, through the easy times and the hard.
The flame that is within each and every one of us, needs to be continuously nourished to stay well lit. When we begin something, it is easy to find the passion and excitement to get started. A week later, a month later, years later , that is when we need the perseverance to keep the momentum.
All of us have something, or many things, in our lives which need constant attention, passion and perseverance to continue to grow – this week we receive the jolt of perseverance energy to keep the flames alive and to continue to persevere towards success and fulfillment.
It is offering that ascends upon the pyre of the Altar (6:2)
Why is the word mokdah (“pyre”) written in the Torah with a miniature hei? To teach us that the fire in one’s soul should be understated; it should burn within, but show nothing on the outside.
Rabbi Avraham Greenbaum
Our portion continues to fill in the details of the various procedures for Temple offerings in each of the four main categories of sacrifices: the whole-burnt (olah), meal (minchah), sin (chatat), guilt (asham) and peace (shelamim) offerings. One particular kind of peace offering is the Thanksgiving Offering:
“And this is the law of the sacrifice of peace-offerings which one may offer to HaShem. If he offers it for a thanksgiving…” (Leviticus 7:11).
It is striking that the Torah introduces the portion about the thanksgiving offering with the word IF. This implies that making an offering as an expression of gratitude to God is not an absolute obligation that the Torah imposes upon us. Rather it is a voluntary act that we carry out because we have become aware of His goodness and kindness to us through His many miracles, and we seek some way to acknowledge Him.
In Temple times Israelites would bring the thanksgiving offering specified in our portion (Lev. 7:11-15) for one of four kinds of miraculous deliverance enumerated in the lengthy psalm of thanksgiving in Psalms 107: deliverance from being lost in the wilderness (Ps. 107, vv. 4-9), held in captivity (vv. 10-16), sick with a dangerous illness (vv. 17-22) and threatened with shipwreck (vv. 23-32).
“Give thanks to HaShem for He is good, for His mercy endures for ever. So let the redeemed of HaShem say… Let them give thanks to HaShem for His mercy, and for His wonderful works to the children of men! Let them exalt Him also in the assembly of the people, and praise Him in the seat of the elders” (Psalms 107, vv. 31-32).
It is deeply humbling to experience an amazing rescue from a critical life-threatening situation, knowing that one’s life was hanging by a thread and was snatched from the claws of death only by a fluke event. The proper response is to reflect on how this fluke can only be a sign of how God is invisibly watching over us constantly, protecting us with loving care. What could we possibly “give” to God in return for such kindness if not our thanks? In the case of very striking miracles, the beneficiaries should give their thanks publicly “in the assembly of the people and… in the seat of the elders” – for telling the story of the miracle to many others provides a graphic illustration of the wonders of God’s ways, strengthening their faith.
Great miracles may not be visible every day. We live in a world governed by the regularities of nature: gravity pulls everything down to earth; the sun rises, passes over and sets; earth’s tilted orbit causes hot weather in summer and cold in winter; the rains fall, the plants grow, the animals and humans eat and get fat, the factories produce, electricity makes all the gadgets work… we are born, live our lives and die…
The deeper we reflect, the more we may see how the multitude of natural laws and processes that govern the world are in themselves totally amazing, and the complex, subtle ways in which they interact to create all the manifold details of the creation in general and in the personal life of each and every one of us is itself an expression of God’s kindness and mercy to all.
Thinking about the many kindnesses God has shown one personally and giving thanks to Him for them is the first step towards deeper knowledge and understanding of His ways – for while God intrinsically is unknowable, His dealings with each and every one are signs and indications of His unceasing watchful presence.
Before asking God for what one needs, one should first start counting and reflecting upon some of His many goodnesses to us so far, such as the miracles of our bodily functioning, health, vision, hearing, taste, smell, touch, the fact that we have survived all the years and all the vicissitudes, eaten and enjoyed many benefits and blessings… In the words of Rabbi Nachman: “When a person wants to pray to God and ask for what he needs, he should first thank God for all of His past kindnesses and only then ask for what he needs. Because if he starts by asking only for what he needs, God says, ‘Have you nothing to thank Me for then?'” (Siach Sarfey Kodesh 1-2).
We may be disappointed with certain aspects of our lives or think ourselves to be in desperate need of certain things we feel we lack. Yet if we are willing to examine negative aspects of our lives in the wider context of other positive aspects, we may come to understand that even the negative stems from God’s watchful care. Again in the words of Rabbi Nachman: “When a person knows that everything that happens to him is for his own good, this is a foretaste of the world to come. To be serene and patient regardless of what you encounter in life is the highest level of knowledge and understanding of God. Have faith that everything is for your ultimate good” (Likutey Moharan I, 4).
Giving thanks to God for His visible kindnesses to us leads us to deeper humility before Him, enabling us to acknowledge the negative within ourselves, to seek to rectify it, and to accept in faith the wisdom of His inscrutable dealings with us through all that He has sent us in our lives. “For His mercy endures for ever!”
“I will not reprove you for your sacrifices; and your burnt-offerings are continually before Me. I will take no bullock out of your house, nor he-goats out of your pens. For every beast of the forest is Mine, and the cattle upon a thousand hills. I know all the birds of the mountains, and the wild beasts of the field are Mine. If I were hungry, I would not tell you; for the world is Mine and its fullness. Do I eat the meat of bulls, or drink the blood of goats? Offer to God the sacrifice of thanksgiving and pay your vows to the Most High. And call upon Me on the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and you shall honor Me…. Whoever offers the sacrifice of thanksgiving honors Me; and to the person that orders his way right I will show the salvation of G-d” (Psalms 50: 8-15; 23).
From Rabbi Rachel Barenblat
Radical Torah repost: Priestly ordination: doing, hearing, walking 2006
Smicha: the word means “lean, lay, rest, support.” It’s a laying-on of hands. We use it today for the ordination of rabbis, but in this week’s Torah portion we see the word’s older usage — the anointing of Aaron and his sons, the first Israelite priests.
It’s an intense ceremony. It requires Moses, and Aaron, and Aaron’s sons; vestments and anointing oil; a bull of sin offering, two rams, and a basket of unleavened bread; and the witnessing power of the entire community, gathered at the Tent of Meeting. Three animals will be leant-upon, then slaughtered, then consumed by mouth and by fire. Of these sacrifices, perhaps the strangest and most intense is the ram of ordination — leant-upon, slaughtered, and its blood used as paint upon Aaron and his sons’ right ears, thumbs, and big toes before the fat parts of the ram (and the breads from the basket) are held up as an elevation-offering and burnt.
Earlier in the portion we read that we are absolutely, positively not to eat blood; it belongs to Adonai, and anyone who eats it is to be cut off from his kin. Blood is a symbol of life-force in a visible and visceral way. As we will learn, contact with blood makes us tamei, charged with the power of spiritual impurity. And here, blood is used to mark Aaron and his sons as priests for all time.
I imagine it was still warm when Moses painted it on. According to God’s instructions he anointed each man with blood in three places: the ridge of his right ear, his right thumb, and his right big toe. Why these three places? What can we learn from this esoteric ritual that speaks to our lives?
The ear was marked because it is a place where the outside world enters human consciousness. Once they were “earmarked” in this way, each new priest would hear things differently; perhaps only holy sounds now would enter, or the sounds that entered would become consecrated in a new way.
The thumb was marked in order to remind these men that matters of life and death resided in the work of their hands. They would be responsible now for the deaths of countless animals — and, through their expiating actions, the lives of the entire community. Their hands would do God’s work in the world, as they understood that work to be done, and needed to be consecrated with the substance which was God’s alone.
And the toe? The toe seems insignificant, until something happens to it. A friend told me recently that he broke a toe — one single toe! — and found himself limping, in tremendous pain, for weeks. Our toes provide us with balance. Perhaps the anointing of the priests’ toes served to remind them that only through the life God lends can we walk the path appointed to us. It warned them to mind their steps, and to be mindful that they walk the earth with constant and unflagging support from the One Who graciously lends us life.
When Moses slaughtered the ram and painted its life upon Aaron and his sons, it conferred holiness upon them. But they leaned on it first, and in so doing they conferred something upon it: the emotional significance necessary for its death to change them.
Today in lieu of sacrifice we offer God the service of our hearts, our prayers and devotions, and the sanctified gratitude we feel at every meal. In this way we are all like priests, drawing near to the Infinite with our own appropriate offerings. What can we do to ensure that we, too — like Aaron and his sons — feel physically charged with our metaphysical task? How can we anoint what we hear, what we touch, and how we walk in the world so that our lives are imbued with the life-force we borrow from God?
~~ Rabbi Shefa Gold’s Torah Journeys
LEVITICUS 6:1 – 8:36
Tzav consists of instructions concerning the sacrifices and how to install the priests in their service.
WE ARE COMMANDED TO BE A NATION OF PRIESTS, to take responsibility for the holiness of our world, to be healers, and when necessary to stand between Life and Death, bridging the finite and the infinite. Tzav addresses the priest in us and so its blessing is in calling that priest forward.
TZAV BEGINS with the instructions for keeping a perpetual fire burning on the altar. Without the constancy of this fire, all of our sacrifices, our prayer, our holy work would cease. This fire on the altar of our hearts is the pre-requisite for all spiritual practice. Tzav directs us in the tending of that innermost fire. If the fire should go out, our priesthood will be worthless.
TZAV ENDS with the ceremony that consecrates our priesthood and sends us to our holy work. During this ceremony we are blessed with the blood of the ram of consecration on the ear, the hand, and the foot:
ON THE EAR that we might hear and respond to the cry of the oppressed and to the still small voice within our own hearts.
ON THE HAND that we might dedicate ourselves to doing justice and making beauty.
ON THE FOOT that we might walk carefully and deliberately on the path of pilgrimage.
THE SPIRITUAL CHALLENGE
TZAV ASKS US TO ENTER WITHIN and inspect the condition of the innermost fire upon the altar of the heart. We are challenged to look at our lives and ask the serious and probing questions about what supports that fire as well as what puts it out.
The fire itself speaks to me and says, “You must provide the spark. Be with the people who spark your creativity and enthusiasm. Keep reading and learning. Seek out places of beauty. Let yourself be challenged by difficult and interesting projects. Make music and colorful art. Travel to exotic places. Find reasons to celebrate.”
Seeing that I am listening, the fire grows bolder saying, “And I need space to burn. Spacious air. The breath of life. Spirit. Wind. Open spaces. If you schedule every minute of your day; if you fill the silence with words; if you clutter up your life with so much stuff … how can you expect me to have enough space to burn?”
The fire begins to open to me and so I speak to her directly. “What will you use as fuel? What keeps you burning?”
The fire flickers brightly at my question and whispers, “The love that you give and the love that you receive… that is my fuel. For love is as fierce as death… no river can sweep it away.”1
“AND ONE MORE THING,” says the fire, flashing righteously, “you must remove the dead ashes every day. I cannot burn clean and pure if the refuse of the past is allowed to accumulate within you. Each morning you must remove that which is old and done.”
1 Song of Songs 8:6-7
For Guideline for Practice please click link to website.
From Rabbi James Stone Goodman
Small Alef Poetry
Lift up the remains of yesterday
put them next to the holy altar
the fire shall not go out
we long for a pure act of worship. [Sefat Emet on Tzav]
The fire burning throughout
the camp moving
the altar traveling [Jerusalem Talmud, Yoma 4:6]
we long for a pure act of worship.
The offering burnt
nothing of the ‘Olah remains
nothing of it can be eaten or sold or turned into anything else
[we long for a pure act of worship] –
Except for the hides
we might make a nice jacket out of the hides
be ruthlessly precise
in the mystery ways,
the future –
C  D [1/2] E flat [1 1/2] F sharp [1/2] G
Every Shabbat a maqam, a musical figure, associated with it.
Hebrew cognate maqom, signifying “place.”
The High Priest’s daily offering was a meal offering, the offering of a poor man. This, for two reasons: that a poor man bringing his pauper’s offering to the Sanctuary should not be ashamed; and to awaken humility in the High Priest’s heart, with the appreciation that before G-d he is the equal of the most impoverished of his brethren.
The location of the Altar is very exactly defined, and is never to be changed… It is a commonly-held tradition that the place where David and Solomon built the Altar on the threshing floor of Arona, is the very place where Abraham built an altar and bound Isaac upon it; this is where Noah built [an altar] when he came out from the ark; this is where Cain and Abel brought their offerings; this is where Adam the First Man offered a korban when he was created–and it is from [the earth of] this place that he was created. Thus the Sages have said: Man was formed from the place of his atonement.
וְהִקְרִיב עַל-זֶבַח הַתּוֹדָה חַלּוֹת מַצּוֹת
“He shall bring his Thanksgiving Offering with cakes of matzah.” (Vayikra 7:12)
The Kohen made the Thanksgiving Offering in the Temple for a person who had survived great danger. Psalm 107 lists the dangers: a journey across the desert, a journey across the sea, imprisonment, illness. Today when we survive great danger we “Bentch Gomel,” making a thanksgiving blessing.
The offering in the Temple: cakes of matzah. We read this on Shabbos HaGadol — the Great Shabbos, the Shabbos before Pesach. The miracle of our safe passage through life’s dangers is identical to the miracle of our safe passage out of Egypt.
As it says in the Hagadah: this isn’t coming from an angel or a messenger; it is straight from God. God brings us out because it is beyond what we can do for ourselves.
The gematria of חַלּוֹת מַצּוֹת “cakes of matzah,” is the same as the gematria of והנה עלה זית טרף בפיה “behold, a plucked olive leaf in her mouth.” This is the dove who Noah sent from the ark after the flood. When she came back with the olive leaf, it was a sign of safe passage for the world.
The story of Pesach is is about when the danger is to all of us. Then God brings us out together. On Shabbos HaGadol — the Torah tells us about thanksgiving for safe passage through personal danger. This is the warm up exercise. On Pesach we celebrate safe passage in each generation, where — in a way that is beyond anything we can rationally grasp — God is bringing us out together.
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