Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-7:37) continues the instructions to Aaron and his sons concerning different types of sacrifice. We hear of the olah, burnt offering; the minchah, meal offering; and the chatat, sin offering. The incredibly specific details of the zevach sh'lamim, sacrifice of well-being, are also included. Finally we are told about the anointing of Aaron and the other Kohanim with blood. This is Leviticus at its most Levitical!
In reading the parashah, I cannot get past the word for which it is named, tzav. The verse containing this word seems to be so simple: "Command Aaron and his sons thus: 'This is the ritual of the burnt offering.'" (Leviticus. 6:2) I wonder: Why does the Torah use the word tzav, "command"? Why not another verb? Why doesn't God just continue to speak in the same way as before, for example, "When a person presents an offering?" (Leviticus 2:1) or "If you bring a meal offering..." (Leviticus 2:14)? Or, alternatively, why does the Torah not simply state, as the parashah does elsewhere, "This is the offering that Aaron and his sons shall offer..." (Leviticus 6:13)? Why is tzav used here? Why is it "commanded"?
The sacrificial rituals of our ancient ancestors and the various types of actual sacrifices seem to have been a way of linking us with God by asking us to share what we possess with God. Our God was, after all, not a typical Mesopotamian deity, who was mostly unconcerned with humankind. Ours is a God whose reality is intimately bound up with us, the people of Israel, whose Torah is an instruction on how we are to live a God-filled existence. Thus offering sacrifices was a method of connecting us in an intimate and physical way with this God who is unseen. But having to share one's crops or the best of one's herd doesn't come easily or naturally. Hence, perhaps doing these acts must be "commanded."
One need not be an ancient Israelite to realize that an individual could have made good use of the possessions that were commanded to be given away in sacrifice: The prize ram could have sired many lambs to add to the flock. The choice flour and fine oil could have helped feed a hungry family. We can all easily find other use for the things we own! On Erev Shabbat (and other times), our tradition commands that we give tzedakah, often in the form of cash inserted into a tzedakah box. Couldn't we have put that money to personal use? Couldn't we have used it to buy the new CD we want or pay for a much-needed vacation? Who doesn't have such a list?! Perhaps this is precisely why giving and sharing what we have is not just an option, or a nice altruistic suggestion, or a "random act of kindness." It is, rather, as this week's parashahreminds us, a mitzvah, a noun that is, after all, derived from the verb tzav.
Questions for Discussion
- Since we can easily rationalize not giving tzedakah, why do we still perform that mitzvah? Can you suggest five reasons for giving tzedakah?
- Do you think that people are naturally selfish, or do you think that there is such a trait as a "natural" inclination to share with others?
- Why do you think that it is Aaron and his sons who are commanded here? Does the text provide any reasons for this? Can you suggest any other reasons?
Rabbi Garry Loeb tells stories, teaches, and leads services at Temple Beth-El, The Monroe Temple of Liberal Judaism in Monroe, NY.
In our family we have a standing joke: Our cat, Mazal, is excused from helping around the house because she doesn't have an opposable thumb! I am reminded of this whenever I read that the near-final acts by which Aaron and his sons were consecrated as priests involved smearing blood on their right ears, thumbs, and big toes. Our commentaries speculate that citing these extremities of the body serves to underscore the requirement that priests must be pure in both words and actions. But when I think of the work of the priests—the regular acts of ritual slaughter, with the cries of animals and the spraying of blood that they surely entailed--I'm not convinced.
In the beginning of this week's portion, Parashat Tzav, it is evident that the details of sacrificial procedures, rites that could become routine, are intended to alert the priests to beware of casual or careless approaches to their duties. During the ordination itself, the drama involves both the priests and the people, as participants and spectators respectively, in the repeated solemn acts of preparation—public washing, dressing, and the appropriate laying of hands upon sacrificial animals. Initially Moses dashes the animals' blood against the altar. He then applies the blood of the second ram that is slaughtered, the ram of ordination, to the priests themselves. Later in Parashat Acharei Mot, the Torah describes blood as containing "the life of the flesh." (Leviticus 17:11) Thus the priests and the altar are consecrated through the use of the symbol of life itself—blood—even though the sources of that blood meet their death through ritual slaughter. And I wonder: Finding himself in this situation in which the blood and entrails and fat and meat of animals are used to help him "draw close" (the meaning of the Hebrew word korban, "sacrifice") to God, how does the priest—a creature of blood himself—keep his balance? How does he preserve his distance from the animals he is commanded to slaughter?
Laying aside for the moment the question of modern sensibilities about animals, I come back to my cat. What is it that distinguishes her, an animal, from me, a human being? Certainly she hears as well—perhaps better—than I do, but her understanding is minimal. To our eternal frustration, she can't even follow directions, for example, "Bring me your dish." She doesn't have an opposable thumb and therefore can't make or manipulate tools. And while my big toe helps me balance and stand upright, she walks on all fours. I wonder if such musings might not inform our understanding of the ordination ritual: The priest is smeared with blood to remind him of his bond with all of life. But the parts of his body that are marked are those that distinguish him from and elevate him above the animals. Thus the ordination ritual both connects the priest to and distances him from the creatures that are to be sacrificed. The same body parts might also connect him to the past, present, and future in a way that is unique to human beings. Can you think how? How can our paying attention to the details of preparation, repetition, and symbolic acts inform our worship?
Sorel Goldberg Loeb is the program director of the Early Childhood Center and Kindergarten through Third-Grade programs of the Westchester Reform Temple. She is the coauthor of Teaching Torah—A Treasury of Insights and Activities.
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