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Torah Sparks

March 31, 2012 – 8 Nisan 5772

Annual: Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36 (Etz Hayim p. 613; Hertz p. 429)
Triennial: Leviticus 7:11 – 7:38 (Etz Hayim p. 617; Hertz p. 432)
Haftarah: Malakhi 3:4 – 24 (Etz Hayim p.1296; Hertz p. 1005)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser

Opening with the divine command that a flame be kept burning on the altar in perpetuity, Parashat Tzav includes a more comprehensive and detailed review of the sacrifices already introduced in the opening chapters of Leviticus: more laws about burnt offerings, daily meal offerings from both the high priest and the other priests, laws of the expiatory sin and guilt offerings, offerings of well-being and of thanksgiving. Expanding ritual responsibility from the priesthood to the general populace – and in so doing, anticipating the content of coming chapters in Parashat Shemini – all Israelites are forbidden to eat the fat or blood even of permitted animals.

Again emphasizing the sacred role of the people Israel as a whole, at God’s command Moses gathers the entire community of Israel at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Moses washes Aaron and his sons and dresses them in the prescribed priestly vestments. The tabernacle and altar and its ritual accoutrements all are anointed with sacred oil, further initiating the regimen of Israelite sacrificial worship. The altar is sanctified with a bullock and rams, and the ordination of the priests, including Aaron, is signified by the sacrificial blood put on their ears, thumbs, and toes. Through this dramatic ritual, biblicist Baruch Levine observes, “the person being purified was treated literally from head to foot,” dedicating his entire being to his sacred endeavor.

The newly ordained founding priests of Israel are consecrated by the sacrificial blood and sacred oil sprinkled on them, as was the altar at which they will serve God and God’s chosen people. The installation of Israel’s cultic leaders culminates in a weeklong process: “You shall remain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, keeping the Lord’s charge – that you may not die – for so I have commanded” (8:35).

Theme #1: “Have Merci!”

“If he offers it for thanksgiving, he shall offer together with the sacrifice of thanksgiving unleavened wafers spread with oil, and cakes of choice flour with oil mixed in, well soaked.” (Leviticus 7:12)

Derash: Study

“In the towns of Judah and the streets of Jerusalem that are deserted… there will be heard once more the sounds of joy and gladness, the voices of bride and bridegroom, and the voices of those who bring thanksgiving offerings to the house of the Lord… ‘For I will restore the fortunes of the land as they were before,’ says the Lord.” (Jeremiah 33:11)

“In the future all sacrifices, with the exception of the thanksgiving sacrifice, will be discontinued.” (Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 9:7)

“We need the ability to thank God for the blessings of each day, for each sunset, for each sunrise, for each new month, for each new year, for each new joy. And this, after all, is the essence of religion to which all else is tributary and commentary.” (Rabbi Stanley Rabinowitz)

“Gratitude is the foundation of joy; its expression is the noblest form of happiness.” (Rabbi Abraham J. Karp)

“If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.” (Meister Eckhart)

Questions for Discussion

Midrash Rabbah, Rabbis Rabinowitz and Karp, and Meister Eckhart all discuss the capacity for gratitude in superlative terms. How does Jewish practice today provide for the expression of thanksgiving? How might the “thanksgiving offering” be restored to a central role – a superlative aspect – of Jewish life?

The verses from Jeremiah form the dramatic conclusion (and often the musical high point) of the Jewish wedding liturgy. Why did the prophet include reference to thanksgiving offerings in his vision of Israel restored? How is this element of his prophecy particularly well-suited to the blessings recited under the chuppah?

Had Rabbi Rabinowitz’s observation been framed as a question, how would you have responded: “What is the essence of religion to which all else is tributary and commentary?”

How does the prescribed use of matzot in the thanksgiving offering relate to their function during our observance of Passover?

If the practice described in our verse were still in force, for what events and experiences in your life would you have been inspired to bring a thanksgiving offering?

Theme #2: “Oil Can What?”

“Moses took the anointing oil and anointed the Tabernacle and all that was in it, thus consecrating them. He sprinkled some of it on the altar seven times, anointing the altar, all its utensils, and the laver with its stand, to consecrate them. He poured some of the anointing oil on Aaron’s head and anointed him, to consecrate him.” (Leviticus 8:10-12)

Derash: Study

“The soothing effect of oil on skin scorched by the burning sun made it symbolize comfort and happiness; while its use for illumination suggested light and life. Though Aaron and his sons alike were sprinkled with oil, the High Priest alone had oil poured upon his head.” (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

“In these verses we read of two parallel acts: the consecration of Aaron, the High Priest, and the consecration of the altar and the tabernacle with its vessels. Both were accomplished by the same means – anointing with the same oil. In this way Aaron, too, became a sacred vessel.” (Chumash Etz Hayim)

“You can pour holy oil and holy water on a thug until you have emptied buckets of both; but at the end he will be a consecrated thug, but a thug all the same unless interior intentions and a disciplined man are present.” (Cardinal William H. O'Connell)

“Anoint, v.: To grease a king or other great functionary already sufficiently slippery.” (Ambrose Bierce)

Questions for Discussion

Ambrose “Bitter” Bierce was a 19th century journalist best known for his satiric lexicon, “The Devil’s Dictionary,” cited above, and for his personal motto, “Nothing matters.” Cardinal O’Connor was Bierce’s contemporary and leader of Boston’s Roman Catholic Archdiocese. Surprisingly, they seem to share some common sentiments toward anointed leadership! How do their statements here differ, and what might they have thought of each other?

There are a number of rationales for the ritual use of oil provided here – comfort and happiness, light and life, the elevated status of the priest as sacred vessel. Which interpretation do you find most convincing? Most appealing? Is the symbolic force of the anointing oil directed exclusively to the priest, or to rankand- file Israelites whom the priest serves as leader and exemplar? Who is the sacred vessel? Whose happiness is at stake?

While anointing oil no longer has a ritual function in Jewish religious practice, there is a lovely custom of saving the remnants of the oil that was placed in the Chanukah menorah but not consumed. That oil, having been used in observance of a mitzvah, may not be used for any secular purpose, such as in cooking or as fuel. Consider our verse and its various interpreters; what does the practice of safeguarding drops of Chanukah oil suggest about us and about our homes?

The verb to anoint – m-sh-ch – is also the root of mashiach – the messiah. How is the figure who will lead the Jewish people and the rest of humanity to redemption and peaceful coexistence related to the role of the priest anointed in the tabernacle?

Historic Note

Parashat Tzav, read on March 31, 2012, prescribes that a perpetual flame be kept burning on the altar in the Tabernacle. On March 31, 1967, Jimi Hendrix burned his guitar on stage for the first time, in what would become an iconic (if not precisely perpetual) element of his performance.

Halachah L’Maaseh

The Sabbath immediately preceding Passover is referred to as Shabbat Ha-Gadol (Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 430:1)—the “Great” Sabbath. While no additional Torah reading is featured on this Shabbat, we chant a special haftarah from the prophet Malachi. The haftarah, referring to yom Adonai ha-gadol v’hanora – “the great and awesome day of the Lord,” marking the advent of the messianic era – may be the source of the name of this Shabbat. Others suggest that “gadol” refers to the “great” rabbinic authority who customarily preaches on this Sabbath to elucidate the laws of the festival –or perhaps to the length of the rabbi’s sermon. Still others assert that this Sabbath is a commemoration of a “great” miracle during the final days leading to the Exodus: on 10 Nisan – a Shabbat – the Israelite slaves were able to select lambs for sacrifice as God commanded (see Exodus 8:22), and, remarkably, did so unmolested by the Egyptians (ibid., Magen Avraham ad loc). It is the custom of many Ashkenazim to recite the “magid” section of the Passover haggadah on this Sabbath (ibid., Rema ad loc) – from “Avadim Hayinu” through “L’chapeir Al Avonoteinu.” The Vilna Gaon, notably, objected to this practice.

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