The Eternal One spoke to Moses, saying: "Command Aaron and his sons thus: 'This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it.'"
As is true of much of the book of Leviticus, Parashat Tzav continues to detail the tasks of the priests and the community in their service to God. Most of this parashah is dedicated to the laws of sacrifice. Like the rules and details set forth in Parashat Tzav, today's rules, laws and details can be seen as the infrastructure that helps make a society work. In fact, the Torah is the basis for much of how society functions today, not so much in the details of building furniture or animal sacrifice but in pointing to how important tasks must be accomplished so that order can exist. Every Shabbat, when we read from the Torah, we are able to see that some aspect of life is addressed in its teachings. If we look at Parashat Tzav through a contemporary lens, we can see that it is very much about responsibilities and rules for behavior. Although the behavior that is regulated and organized by rules in this parashah-that of ritual sacrifice-no longer is practiced, the idea of regulating and organizing behavior is still very applicable to contemporary society.
God knows (and knew) that we humans are a fragile and a difficult lot to keep organized and that building a society requires the support, effort and cooperation of everyone. It makes sense to us then that the Torah is full of rules and guidelines. Its teachings provided the Israelites with structure that, although thousands of years old, still speaks to us today as well.
The bulk of the narrative of this parashah deals with the role of the priests, Aaron and his sons. They have a very important job in the Israelite society. This parashah outlines specifically much of how they go about their jobs as priests. Parenting is a very important job in our society, but unlike with the job of the priests, there are only very few specific instructions for how to behave and what to do in certain areas of parenting. Outside of the legal realm, there are also expectations about caring for and teaching our children that vary widely. These expectations are important not only to parents as they relate to their home and family life but also to society as a whole, all of us gaining when children are taught well and our communities are growing stronger for the effort.
Our society firmly commands, through laws, the responsibilities that parents have in meeting their children's basic needs. For example, parents have an obligation by law to clothe, feed, house and educate their children-no exceptions. In this way, society commands such behavior from parents, even though most would do all of these things and more without laws making them do so. But not all, and not always. If parents do not provide for the basic needs of their children, then they are punished because their behavior is antisocial and by law unacceptable. Then there are areas of childrearing where there is no specific road map to follow, areas that allow for more wiggle room, in which individual parenting styles surface. It is in this arena that differences begin to emerge, for example in how parents teach their children manners, respect, patience, compassion, values and virtues.
Today, the practice of Judaism looks very different from the rituals outlined in Parashat Tzav. Jews don't burn animals to please God or to gain God's favor. But even if the concept of "God" is foreign or unapproachable in one's life, this Torah portion definitely has relevance to our lives in the 21st century. The concepts contained in Parashat Tzav, concepts that metaphorically guide us in the building of a just and inclusive society, are more important than ever. Let all of us commit to teaching yet another generation that civilization flourishes when people do the right things, whether commanded or suggested, not just for themselves but for the good of the community.
Questions and Ideas for Parents:
- How do you think your parenting affects society as a whole?
- Do you believe there are exceptions to every rule?
- How do you handle those areas of parenting that don't have specific rules and guidelines? Is there a roadmap that you try to follow?
Questions for Children:
- What do you think about having to follow rules in your house or at school?
- What happens if you don't follow rules?
- Do you play any games with your parents or friends where you get to make up the rules? What kind of rules do you make up?
Pages 688-697 in The Torah: A Modern Commentary Revised Edition, by W. Gunther Plaut.