A few years ago I put a reminder on my Google Calendar for 12:30 p.m. every day to get up and do some part of Minchah, the afternoon service. I’ll be honest, this method has been at best modestly successful in convincing me to close my computer, stand up, and offer a brief prayer of gratitude. Still, as a cantor of a synagogue tasked with guiding my congregation in worship, I keep coming back to daily prayer as a source of the personal affirmation and renewal I need to serve as the leader I hope to be.
In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, Aaron and his sons, the priests of the Israelite community, are commanded to make their own daily, humble, personal sacrificial offerings as part of their regular work of Temple service.
“This is the offering that Aaron and his sons shall offer to the Eternal on the occasion of his anointment: a tenth of an eifah of choice flour as a regular meal offering, half of it in the morning and half of it in the evening” (Lev 6:13).
For those who might be a bit rusty on their biblical measurements, a “tenth of an eifah” would be about eight cups of flour, putting it at the bottom of the rankings of sacrificial offerings (think bulls and sheep) described in Leviticus. Also, lest you understand from this verse that this offering was only a one-time thing, our Sages clarified that “on the occasion” should be read as “from the occasion,” meaning that this offering would be done by every High Priest on the day of his anointment, as well as every morning and evening after that.
Sephardic commentator Isaac Abarbanel (1437-1508), ever the careful teacher, identifies 10 reasons for the specific nature of this offering (see Abarbanel of Lev. 6:13). He explains (reason 1) that this daily offering, like other Temple sacrifices, is meant to, at least in part, atone for the sins of the High Priest since “there is not one good person on earth who does what is best and doesn’t sin” (Kohelet 7:20). In bringing this daily sacrifice for himself, says Abarbanel, the High Priest demonstrates for others that if he needs to atone, so do they (reason 2), and they should feel no shame in bringing their own offerings to atone for their shortcomings (reason 3). The offering is composed of flour so that (reason 4) the poorest members of the community will see that the High Priest’s offering is only a cake of flour (rather than, for example, a goat) and won’t feel embarrassed at the offerings they can afford to bring themselves.
Moving from the impact of this offering on the public to its effects on the internal psyche of the High Priest, the offering will (reason 5) help the High Priest himself to feel humble and poor before the Master of the Universe. And, this daily offering is given twice a day as an expression of gratitude (reason 7) for the privileges and gifts of priesthood.
This clearly parallels the needs of those of us who are entrusted to head our communities today, whether as lay leaders, clergy, teachers, or any other position of authority. None of us are perfect (reason 1) and we all need our own practice — be it in prayer, Jewish learning, meditation, or other “offerings.” It is not enough to focus our energies only on the needs of the community. We must, on a regular recurring basis, give of and for ourselves, and allow others to see us engaged in this activity (reason 2), so that they will be encouraged to follow our example with self-assurance (reason 3). Further, our offerings cannot be so high and exalted that they intimidate others (reason 4) and drive us further towards elitism (reason 5) — they must be humble, simple, and attainable by all. They should serve as reminders of the privileges we enjoy as leaders and as vehicles for gratitude (reason 7).
The Babylonian Talmud (M’nachot 51b) asserts that while the High Priest must bring this offering every day, the other priests bring it only on the first day that they are initiated into Temple service. Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman (1897-1943), the compiler of “Wellsprings of Torah,” a popular anthology of rabbinic commentaries on the Torah, quotes from (in his words) “One of the Great Ones” who expounded on the curious detail that the High Priest would give the same offering as a new initiate:
“With a person on a higher spiritual level, every day must represent a new beginning, a renewal of zeal for the task that must be accomplished. Today, this person is not at all what they were yesterday, rather they are a new person. Thus, every day for the High Priest was like a new initiation – ‘the occasion of his anointment.’” (Rabbi Alexander Zusia Friedman)
Most of us fail when held to the standards of the High Priest. Rather than seeing how we have become a new person today, we cling to the self we knew yesterday. Perhaps we don’t feel ourselves to be people who are “on a higher spiritual level.” I know that I am, way too often, much less pious than my Google Calendar would indicate. Nevertheless, the simple cakes of flour offered by the High Priest every morning and night have much to teach us. Through our daily practice (or perhaps our attempts at it) we have the opportunity for renewal; through our humble offerings we can remind ourselves of the very things that brought us to the positions of leadership we enjoy. When we remember to give of and for ourselves, we model for our communities how to give of and for themselves.
Parashat Tzav reminds us that the work of leadership begins and ends, every day, with small acts of personal dedication and rededication. As we face the challenges ahead, may we find the offerings we need to give to stay humble, to be grateful, and to continually begin anew.
Cantor Berger’s d’var Torah on Parashat Tzav reminds us both of the overarching piety of the High Priests of yesterday and the real-world challenges we face today in trying to live up to such standards. The very language of the portion feels foreign, taking us to a different time, a different place, and a wholly different mode of religious practice, based as it was on a series of sacrificial rites. His words encourage a close reading of those early Jewish practices and considering where in our own lives, even centuries removed from the days of High Priests, we might also access a sense of divine connection.
His commentary also teaches that it is OK to be exemplars, setting a course for our families and communities by virtue of striving for a level of intentional practice, even if not perfect. Indeed, we need not apologize for leading by way of action when it comes to study, prayer, or the holy work of tikkun olam, repairing the fractured world around us.
Many of us who began this current Daf Yomi cycle — studying a new page a day of the Babylonian Talmud for the next seven years — are currently navigating Tractate Shabbat alongside the often harrowing words of Leviticus. The tractate that initiated the cycle, however, B’rachot, speaks to many of the same tensions we may feel in reading this portion: How do we atone? What does it mean to make sacrifices in the name of faith? How might we define purity?
In B’rachot, however, quite unlike Tzav, the Rabbis invite us to take part in the work of sacrifice, prayer, and study. The window during which one may recite the Sh’ma, for instance, is opened wide, not defined narrowly as the moment of waking in the morning or laying down at night, as we might have thought. Varying degrees of flexibility appear later in the tractate when it comes to reciting the Grace after Meals (Birkat HaMazon) and even the Mourner’s Kaddish.
The seemingly unreachable version of personal practice outlined by the author of Leviticus is here rebuked by those religious leaders who lived with and among the Jewish community. The Sages of the Talmud were very much of the people, unlike the priestly class of Leviticus, which dressed differently, served God differently than the broader populous, and had access to ritual in ways that many did not.
The attitude of this first tractate of the Talmud, like Cantor Berger’s suggestion that we model our Judaism for would-be students and learners, thus reads as encouraging and supportive, inspiring us to a Judaism from which others might learn and also feel inspired. The Rabbis aimed for accessibility, bringing us from the elevated station of the priestly class to a Judaism that would be lived in our homes, at school, at our places of work, and in the synagogue of today.
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
Haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol, Mal. 3:4-24, The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 1,654-1,656; Revised Edition, pp. 1,459-1,461