For many rabbis, today’s sermon would be an opportunity to review in length the laws of Passover. I leave that to one more qualified – Rabbi Goldstein. My job is to talk about today’s parsha – Tzav. However, Rabbi Goldstein is much more qualified to talk about that also. And not just because she’s our rabbi. Tzav was the parsha of her Bat Mitzvah…. just a few years ago. Unfortunately, I couldn’t find her Dvar Torah on the internet.
But I did find something equally interesting – just to digress for a moment - when I Googled “rabbi gives sermon on Shabbat Hagadol”
Right at the top of the list – why look any further - was a sermon delivered by Rabbi Norman Lamm on Shabbat Hagadol, April 2, 1966. He talked about why today is called Shabbat Hagadol and he cited Rabbi Yaacov ben Asher. He was – and look, I learned something worthwhile on the internet - the 14th century scholar of a work called “Arba’ah Turim” – literally “Four Rows.” It’s an important work of Halakhic code that interestingly – to quote Rabbi Wikipedia – “deals only with areas of Jewish law that are applicable in the Jewish exile.” Hold that thought. I’m going to circle back to that eventually.
Anyway, here’s what Rabbi Lamm said on Shabbat Hagadol on April 2, 1966:
Rabbi Yaacov, author of the Turim, maintains that Shabbat Hagadol is called by this name le'fi she'naaseh bo nes gadol, because a great miracle, nes gadol, was performed on this day; the Hebrews who were yet slaves in Egypt dared to slaughter the lamb - regarded as the deity of the Egyptians in defiance of their taskmasters, ve'lo hayu rasha’in lo-mar la-hem davar — and the Egyptians were not able to protest or rebuke them. Shabbat Ha-gadol, in other words, celebrates the remarkable courage and the heroic conviction of the Children of Israel who reached new heights of fearlessness in their dedication to the Almighty. The nes gadol was not only a "great miracle”, but also a "miracle of greatness" — Jews, heretofore diffident slaves, were able to take such risks for their beliefs, for their God! Perhaps it is best to see this act of bravery and dedication in a larger context. All of the Bible, and all of Judaism, is the story of the dialogue between God and man. So said Rabbi Norman Lamm when The Beatles were still together.
And it’s that dialogue between God and humanity, and the theme of sacrifices that Rabbi Yaacov mentions that brings me – finally – to today’s parsha – Tzav. As we’ll soon be reminded when we the Pesach narrative at our Seders, Moses told Pharaoh that the Israelites needed to go to the wilderness to sacrifice to their God. And parsha Tzav demonstrates, Moses wasn’t kidding.
If you like sacrificing and are a connoisseur of the kind of elitist and not surprisingly patriarchal practices of our ancestors – this is the parsha for you. All the instructions the Aaronide prieshood needed to carry out the sacrifices introduced in last weeks parsha are here. This is the instruction manual for how to do something we haven’t done since the destruction of the Second Temple and are bloody unlikely to do ever again. And “bloody” is the operative word in the rituals that are laid out in this parsha. For although we are forbidden to consume blood, there is plenty of it dabbed here and there. More on that later.
On the surface, some would dismiss this as pretty boring stuff. It’s seemingly irrelevant, repetitive and irrelevant. But I’m here today to convince you that it’s not irrelevant at all. Though it is still repetitive.
So with our minds firmly set on the plot rich story of Pesach that we are going to retell on Monday and Tuesday nights before we get to the even richer meal that we will miraculously consume, what do we make of all this sacrificing in the desert? To crudely paraphrase the Hagaddah, “These two chapters of ancient ritual instruction in parsha Tzav, what do they mean to me?”
Well, first of all we know that everything that happens in the wilderness is preparation for life in Eretz Yisrael. A civilization is being created from a populace of former slaves. The evolution of Bnei Yisrael is being broadcast live from the wilderness.
They have a god. They have a leader. They have the Ten Commandments. And now in the book of Leviticus, Vayikrah, it’s about to rain commandments. Lots of them. The name of this parsha, Tzav, is the word for command. In this parsha, most, but not all of the commanding is directed toward Aaron and his sons. The opening verse is: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Command – Tzav – Aaron and his sons thus:
And “thus” can be summed up “thus”:You’ve got your burnt offering. Grain offering. Purification offering. Reparation offering. The offering of ordination. And the offering of well-being.
We’re told what exactly should be offered and how it should be done. Some of the details are actually interesting – in an odd sort of way. Check them out.
For instance, to me the grain offering almost sounds like they’re making pancakes. Chapter 6, verse 14, it says the grain offering “shall be prepared with oil on a griddle.” Who knew God liked pancakes? But I think it also says somewhere you can’t include honey in a sacrifice. I wonder what they would have done with maple syrup? We’ll never know because this particular sacrifice of the priestly ordination was to go up in smoke – who hasn’t burnt pancakes before – and it was not to be eaten by the priests. Oh but don’t worry, they got more than their fair share out of the sacrifice industry.
Some of the details are even stranger. Also in the priestly ordination ritual blood of the second ram is dabbed on the ridge of the right ear, the thumb of the right hand, and the big toe of the right foot. Moses does the dabbing. Aaron and his sons are the dabbed.
So although these are instructions for something we no longer do – there is much we can glean from that which God repeatedly in this parsha commands – not strongly advises – but commands Moses and Aaron and his sons to do.
First of all, it certainly doesn’t appear that either Moses or Aaron and his sons have any of the divine characteristics or status that Egyptian culture attributed to Pharaoh. They are just serving their God. Aaron and his sons do have a certain status and it’s pretty clear the priestly cult is set up to ensure that the offerings of the people help keep them well fed. But it’s also clear that although the priests are being fed, God is not. Unlike other ancient gods, the god of Bnei Yisrael is satisfied by the symbolism of these offerings. Sacrificing was not intended to literally be feeding god. But it does mention several times that God is pleased by the odors. And it goes almost without saying that although there are many other things in Leviticus that are cringe-worthy at least we don’t have to make any excuses for human sacrifice. We didn’t do it.
So if we were not literally feeding God, what is the overall purpose, regardless of the category of the sacrifice, of making these sacrifices? I suggest the purpose is twofold.
One of the words used to describe the offering is “korbun”. To make an offering is the verb “hekriv”. The root is the word “karov” - to get close. The outcome of these sacrifices is supposed to be a renewed closeness to God. For the community, for the priests and for individuals.
I also see sacrifices as a form of communication. It was how we talked to God. The rituals are the syntax and vocabulary we were given to do so.
Which brings me to the offering of well-being. Unlike the other categories of sacrifices that denied anything remotely resembling participation by non-priests this offering was different. Chapter 7, verses 28-30:
And the Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to the Israelite people thus: The offering to the Lord from a sacrifice of well-being must be presented by him who offers his sacrifice of well-being to the Lord: His own hands shall present the Lord’s gifts.
Now the priests still did the actually sacrificing of this offering but I like to believe this demonstrates an early inclusiveness, a suggestion that anyone can communicate with God. Not just Moses, or Aaron or his sons, or the prophets or our rabbis. Of course we take that for granted now but I was truly blown away to see the idea of a direct line of communication to the Divine has its origin in a place like Vayikra, the book of Leviticus.
So, this parsha tells us how important sacrifices are. And now its’ time to to tell you how unimportant they are. And I’m not making that up. It’s what the prophet Jeremiah says in the Haftorah. Not the one we’re reading today – because it’s Shabbat Hagadol – but the haftorah that’s read when this parsha does not fall on Shabbat Hagadol.
The prophet Jeremiah is pretty darn sure the day will come when the First Temple is destroyed and the inhabitants of Eretz Yisrael, the very descendants of those who God took out of Egypt will be exiled. Which means they won’t be able to sacrifice cause they won’t have a temple. So Jeremiah goes on one of his rants. And in this haftorah he rants against sacrifices. In fact, he goes so far as to suggest that they are not what God commanded at all. Certainly not what God really wants from us. The haftorah ends with this beautiful verse:
For I the Lord act with kindness, justice and equity in the world; For in these I delight – declares the Lord.
In other words, the sacrificial offerings – grain, bulls, rams, lambs – whatever, and dare I say even prayer is not enough. It’s when we perform acts of kindness, and create justice and equity in the world that we truly please God.
And that brings me back to Rabbi Yaacov and his Arba’ah Turim. Remember I said it only deals with Jewish laws that are applicable in Jewish Exile? I don’t know his work at all, but I have feeling that even in the 14th century he had a pretty good idea that there wasn’t any point in worrying about what we might do about sacrifices even if we were no longer exiled. Jeremiah’s rebuke of the sacrifices in this parsha demonstrates that we are a people that can look forward not backward to deepen our communication with God and our need to get close to God. Lehakriv - to get close – the perfect outcome of a good sacrifice.
What we’re trying to do here at City Shul is find the right blend of ritual and action. The two go hand in hand and today are the building blocks of what I think of – as we approach Earth Hour this evening - as “sustainable Judaism”.
Consider the following midrash:At the moment that the Children of Israel, led by Nachshon a leader of the tribe of Judah, went into the Red Sea (before it parted) Moshe stood lost in prayer before God. God said to him: ‘Moshe, my friend (Nachshon) is sinking in the water and you are lost in prayer before Me?’ Moshe said to Him: ‘Master of the Universe, what can I do? He said to him: ‘And lift up your staff’ (Ex. 14:16)” And it’s at that moment the sea parted. Prayer was important but truly the sustainability of the Children of Israel depended on Moses, like Nachson, taking action.
A year ago, last Pesach City Shul started looking for people of action. And here you are today. The journey is continuing. We are building our brand of Judaism. The Children of Israel needed those sacrifices. In his day, Jeremiah could see that a paradigm shift was coming. We must pray, we must act and most of all keep moving forward.
Shabbat Hagadol Shalom.