The first seven chapters of the Book of Leviticus can be perceived as an operations manual. It contains specific instructions to the priests on how to conduct sacrifices in ancient times.
This central book of the Pentateuch serves a timeless purpose. Modern readers can regard these Levitical instructions as a metaphoric guide for the attainment of our own spiritual and ethical sanctity and sanity.
An excellent example of this approach can be found in the opening verses of this week's Torah portion, Parashat Tzav. What at first glance appears to be a menial, albeit sacred, housekeeping task is a profound statement about the importance of kavanah-the mindful attention we should bring to all aspects of life.
In the first six verses of chapter six of the Book of Leviticus, the procedures related to the ritual of the olah—the burnt offering—are reiterated. What is added in this section and not found in the earlier exposition in chapter one of Leviticus is a series of statements concerning the maintenance of the altar fire itself and the area around the sacrificial altar. These procedures all emphasize the goal of keeping the fire on the altar burning day and night. (Leviticus 6:2, 5, 6)
Each morning, we are told, the priests must gather the ashes around the altar and take them to a clean place outside the Israelite camp. (Leviticus 6:4) What is particularly puzzling is the instruction that before they remove the ashes, Aaron and his sons are to put on their best "Shabbat clothes"—to dress in their linen ceremonial vestments to clean up the altar. (Leviticus 6:3) The question is: Why were Aaron and his sons instructed to don their finest linen robes and breeches to remove the ashes from the altar? There is no doubt that in gathering the ashes, the priests would soil their garments.
How often have you felt the need to put on a particular piece of clothing to lift your spirits or to dress up for a particular occasion? Wearing a special piece of clothing such as a "good luck" hat or a favorite tie can often put you into a more mindful state. I have heard it said, "If you're dressed up on the outside, then you're dressed up on the inside." By instructing the priests to put on their finest clothing for the removal of the ashes from the altar, the Torah seems to emphasize the need for the priests to pay close attention to what might appear to be the most inconsequential details of their special work.
We, too, sorely need such reminders to keep us focused on the present. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, of blessed memory, said, "God is in the details."
It seems more than a coincidence that we read Parashat Tzav each year on Shabbat Hagadol—the Shabbat preceding the celebration of Pesach. The Torah and the Jewish calendar send us a very strong message: As we rid ourselves of the chametz of old habits, we are being given a chance to begin anew-to pay closer attention to the details in our lives. With kavanah, we put ourselves into a more attentive mind-set that enables us to better perform the mitzvot. With a clearer focus and a stronger desire to fulfill the mitzvot, we can insure that our own fires will not go out.
Rabbi Gerald M. Kane is the rabbi of Temple Beth El in Las Cruces, NM.
Having been raised early on in a Reform household, I spent most of my teenage years in a Conservative synagogue. I learned how to daven. I learned to read Hebrew more quickly. I didn't care much about taking the time to understand what I was saying or the meanings behind the rituals. I had a good deal of catching up to do, and I was determined to do it! I learned when to begin gathering the tzitzit on my talit in anticipation of the Shema, when to stand, etc. I became part of the team, one of the regulars. I knew enough about what was going on that I could do much of it by heart.
But one day, I really looked at the English translation. I remember thinking to myself, "I'm saying that to God? I don't want to say that to God!" I was especially disturbed by the Musaf service, the additional service for Shabbat and festivals that pointedly recalls the sacrificial cult in our ancient Temple. I could not believe that the God to whom I was praying would ever have wanted my people to kill other living things in that God's name or expect me to get ready to do it again!
As a result of that epiphanic moment, I have always wrestled. When faced with traditional prayers (even in Gates of Prayer), I am always "reworking" what is before me, expanding ethnocentricities into universalisms, moving from patriarchy to parenthood, and changing limited theologies that reduce God to Merlin in the sky. In writing original prayers, I feel a sense of urgency to express myself as a post-Holocaust, post-Viet Nam, post-Watergate Jew living with the legacies and realities of violence, the despoliation of the earth, and pockets of poverty amid unprecedented wealth. I also feel the need to express my continuous awe at the daily miracles of life, the love of family and friends, the persistence of a wild flower in growing, and the unrequested kindnesses that human beings bestow upon one another.
This week's parashah, Tzav, recounts in great detail our ancient system of daily sacrifices that were offered by a dynasty of priests as proxies for the people—the same sacrifices that I realized long ago I could not countenance. We pray to God in other ways now, and we realize that we cannot do so unless we are also giving to ourselves and those around us. We pray to God and give to ourselves with the sincerity of our words, couched in traditional forms and given renewed meanings by our own emendations, substitutions, and additions. We pray to God and give to ourselves with the passion of our energies devoted to tikkun, healing. We pray to God and give to ourselves as we strive to maintain hope when it would be much easier to abandon one another to hopelessness. The passive prayers of words and music are inspirational. But they mean nothing unless they are accompanied by the active prayers of expanding our circles of love, taking time to revel in the grandeur of Creation, and choosing to act in the name of repair. May all of our living be such prayer.
Rabbi Neil Comess-Daniels is the rabbi of Beth Shir Sholom in Santa Monica, CA.
Tzav, Leviticus 6:1–8:36
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 781–798; Revised Edition, pp. 686–700;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 593–614