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Torah Sparks

Parashat Tzav (Shabbat HaGadol)
March 23, 2013 – 12 Nisan 5773

Annual: Leviticus 6:1-8:36 (Etz Hayim p. 613; Hertz p. 429)
Triennial: Leviticus 8:1-8:36 (Etz Hayim p. 621; Hertz p. 435)
Haftarah: Malakhi 3:4-24 (Etz Hayim p. 1296; Hertz p. 1005)

Prepared by Rabbi Joseph Prouser
(Temple Emanuel of North Jersey; Franklin Lakes, NJ)

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: additional laws concerning 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.

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: "Fear of Relying"

"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." (Leviticus 7:29-30)

Derash: Study

Imagine the excitement felt by the individual in being an active participant in the sh'lamim offering, literally doing something with his or her own hands! What better response is there to a personal, profoundly moving event in one's life? The 'hands-on' aspect of this sacrifice serves to emphasize the personal nature of these events. What a powerful message! The 'hands-on' nature of the offering implies a level of personal responsibility: It is a partnership between the individual and God. You thank God for the positive end result, but you also realize your active role in reaching the outcome. (Rabbi Michal Shekel)

Collective participation in the rite of sacrifice became intensely personal when worship reached its climax at the altar: 'The offering... must be presented by him who offers his sacrifice of well-being to the Lord; his own hands shall present the Lord's gifts.' I suspect even sacrifice became routine after a while. Everything does. Keva is the enemy of kavanah. Even with the sound and smell of animals under the knife, there were probably Israelites who yawned and wished for variety. There is too much yawning in our synagogues, and too little variety. (Professor Arnold Eisen)

It is only to the individual that a soul is given. And the high destiny of the individual is to serve rather than to rule. (Albert Einstein)

How true Daddy's words were when he said: all children must look after their own upbringing. Parents can only give good advice or put them on the right paths, but the final forming of a person's character lies in their own hands. (Anne Frank)

Take your life in your own hands, and what happens? A terrible thing: no one to blame. (Erica Jong)

Questions for Discussion

Is keva (the fixed, prescribed form of prayer and, more generally, religious expression) truly "the enemy of kavanah," as Professor Eisen argues? How can establishing a fixed pattern aid as a vehicle for kavanah?

What are the moral and spiritual perils inherent in the denigration of keva – constancy, repetition, devotion to the familiar routine – and the elevation of variety as an end in itself? In what ways is keva the true test of character (even if seemingly less exciting than the alternative)?

What might have motivated our verse's prescription of personal, hands-on presentation of the well-being offering by the individual Israelite? A desire to dispel boredom with routine sacrifice (a la Eisen)? Empowerment of the Israelite rank and file with priestly perspective and personal investment in worship (see Shekel)? The development of personal responsibility for one's own character (Frank) and direction (Jong)?

How has the perceived need for variety and excitement – and our concomitant propensity to "yawn" – grown more intense in recent years? How do contemporary forms of entertainment and media contribute to this tendency? How should congregational worship respond to this "new" reality? Is keva the problem or the anti-dote? How does principled observance of Shabbat relate to this challenge?

Theme #2: "Magic 8:8 Ball?"

"He put the breastpiece on him, and put into the breastpiece the Urim and Thummim." (Leviticus 8:8)

Derash: Study

"Urim: A written record of God's ineffable Name." (Rashi)

"Why were they called Urim and Tumim? Urim because they illuminated the words of the priest (relating ur to or – light – JHP), and Tumim because they completed the priests words (relating tum to tam – whole, complete – JHP)... Rabbi Yochanan said the letters (from the tribal names on the breastplate) would protrude; Resh Lakish said they would come together to form words... Any priest who was unable to speak with the Holy Spirit of God's Presence would not be asked questions (which required him to consult the Urim and Tumim)." (Talmud, Yoma 73B)

"Perhaps they were the 22 letters of the Hebrew alphabet on 22 small pieces of wood or metal, and the priest would draw one letter after another, and God's Providence would assure that the letters would be so ordered as to spell out the correct answer to the priest's question." (Shmuel David Luzatto)

"Scripture records that in times of doubt and national crisis during the earlier period of Israel's history, the people consulted the Urim and the Thummim for information and guidance (Num. xxvii, 21; I Sam. xxviii, 6); but what the procedure was is nowhere explained... They remain one of the most obscure subjects connected with the High Priesthood." (Rabbi Joseph H. Hertz)

"When confronted with a difficult or sensitive dilemma, we would often like a simple 'yes' or 'no' so we can stop pondering our decision and move on. Accordingly, we often latch onto a simplistic reason for our 'yes' or 'no,' often couching it in large, all-embracing terms, such as 'One should never...' or 'It's always good to...' or 'I couldn't possibly....' This is the answer of the urim. But it is not always a sufficient response to an important question. We must also consult the tumim that imbues us with ruach ha-kodesh (divine inspiration). When we consider how our situation relates to God and others, how our question is situated in the broader and divine scheme of things, and the long-term effects of what we do, we bring more sensitivity and sanctity to the decision-making process." (Rabbi Amy Scheinerman)

Questions for Discussion

It seems clear that the Urim and Tumim were some kind of oracular device. Their form is uncertain; the procedure in which they were used is unknown; even the meaning of their name – Urim v'Tumim – is a matter of debate. Is this information simply lost to history? Or is there intrinsic value in maintaining a degree of mystery around the process of decision-making at times of crisis? Does mystery enhance the stature of the leader... or undermine the leader's credibility among the rank and file? Is "transparency" in religious decisionmaking (or, for that matter, in government) an absolute value?

Yoma asserts that the viability (and reliability) of the Urim and Tumim depended to an extent on the spiritual stature of the priestly leader resorting to the oracular device. How is this balance reflected in the role of rabbinic decisors today? In our own personal spiritual lives?

Consider Rashi's opinion that the Urim (and Tumim?) comprised a written record of God's Name. (He does not specify what material or medium was used for this record or inscription.) What function (beyond the strictly oracular) might such a written message, tucked within the priestly vestments, have played in the life and function of the priest? How would your daily personal comportment be changed were you compelled to carry God's Name with you at all times?

Rabbi Scheinerman suggests that divine truth – Godly answers to our "big" questions – is generally complex and nuanced, ill served by absolutes and simple categories of yes and no, right and wrong. Is this view consistent with the function of the Kohen (or later religious leaders of the Jewish People)? Is nuance always a virtue? In what areas of human interaction and religious principle is a "black and white," "all-embracing" approach indicated?

Historic Note

Parashat Tzav, read on March 23, 2013, describes the expansion of ritual observance beyond the priesthood, spiritually empowering the Israelite nation at large with rudiments of the dietary laws. On March 23, 1490, the first dated edition of Maimonides' Mishneh Torah – a popular guide to Jewish Law intended to make the details of religious observance accessible to the Jewish rank and file – was published.

Halachah L'Maaseh

In a responsum published just prior to Pesach 5772, Rabbi David Golinkin points out that "most Jews in the Diaspora use horseradish for maror at the seder, while most Israeli Jews use romaine lettuce." Rabbi Golinkin, basing his ruling on that of the 17th Century Chacham Tzvi, as well as "modern Talmudic botanists such as Loew, Feliks, and Schaffer," concludes that the maror prescribed by the Mishnah is indeed romaine lettuce: "there is no question." He points out that "horseradish was not cultivated in Israel in the time of the Mishnah, it is sharp and not bitter... and one cannot eat the correct amount of k'zayit, an olive's worth, without endangering one's health." Golinkin asserts that his finding reflects how the 20th Century restoration of Jewish society to the Land of Israel has allowed the Jewish People "to relearn the Mishnah and Talmud with greater understanding" and linguistic accuracy. On this basis – though recognizing how entrenched the practice of using horseradish has become, Rabbi Golinkin expresses his "hope that in time more and more Jews will adopt the original Israeli practice of using romaine lettuce for maror at the seder."

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