Tzav for Tweens

Tzav, Leviticus 6:1−8:36

Tzav, the second Torah portion in Leviticus, continues with the regulations for sacrifices, and then outlines the ritual of priestly ordination for Aaron and his sons.

Our selection comes from the conclusion of the third aliyah:

Such are the rituals of the burnt offering, the meal offering, the purgation offering, the reparation offering, the offering of ordination, and the sacrifice of well-being, with which the Eternal charged Moses on Mount Sinai, when commanding that the Israelites present their offerings to the Eternal, in the wilderness of Sinai. (7:37-38)

Through imaginative midrash, the Rabbis were able to keep even the passages about the sacrificial offerings in Leviticus relevant and meaningful. The midrashim found in Vaykira Rabbah, the great collection of homiletical teachings derived from Leviticus, present profound spiritual and ethical insights derived from even the most arcane details of the ancient sacrificial service (which, by the time of the Rabbis, had long since ceased). What a brilliant way to keep alive Biblical teachings that might have otherwise fallen into obsolescence.

Midrash routinely invites the reader to find significance in details of grammar and syntax. In the verse we are seeking to explain, Vayikra Rabbah declares significant the order in which the sacrifices are listed in the text. The zevach sh'lamim or "sacrifice of well-being" comes last in the litany. Relating sh'lamim to the word shalom, the Rabbis understood these as "peace-offerings." Peace offerings come last, the Rabbis conclude, to underscore the importance of peace in the Jewish tradition.

The Rabbis present shalom as the ultimate ethical precept. "How great is peace!" the midrash exclaims again and again. (Vayikra Rabbah 9:9) Citing the verse, Seek peace and pursue it (Psalms 34:15), the midrash explains that ordinarily, one performs a mitzvah only when provided with a specific opportunity to do so. (Think, for instance, of lighting Shabbat candles, welcoming strangers, visiting the sick, and so forth). But when it comes to shalom, one is obligated to seek out opportunities to bring peace, even if that means traveling to distant and dangerous places. The same midrash observes that the Birkat Shalom (the Prayer for Peace) comes last in the blessings of the T'filah-thereby making it an expression of the ultimate Jewish hope. In the less frequently cited text from Pirkei Avot, shalom is the ultimate virtue: "On three principles the world endures, on truth, on justice and on peace." (Avot 1:18)

The Torah itself extols peace. When approaching a town to wage war, Deuteronomy instructs the Israelites first to offer it terms of peace. (20:10) Only if the town refuses peaceful negotiation does the Torah permit a military siege. Maimonides repeated that no matter the cause of a looming military engagement, one must regard combat as a last resort, pursuing peace first and foremost. (Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 6:1)

Given the need for peace globally, it seems all the more interesting that Vayikra Rabbah sets its sights on a more modest stage. This midrash communicates most passionately about the need for peace in the home, or sh'lom bayit. Sh'lom bayit trumps even the need for complete disclosure between husbands and wives, if disclosure will serve only to hurt one partner's feelings. To wit: Sarah insulted her husband Abraham when God announced that she would bear a child: …[W]ill I have pleasure, with my lord so old? (Genesis 18:2) But when God reported Sarah's glib response to Abraham, God softened her jibe, presenting the insult as self-deprecating, poking fun at her own old age, not her husband's. (Ibid, v. 13, in Vayikra Rabbah 9:9) As a result, God spared Abraham undue humiliation, and, moreover, preserved sh'lom bayit. After all, what is tact but subjugating forthrightness for the sake of shalom?

Today universal peace seems distant. A global "War on Terror" persists. Americans and Iraqis clash day after day. The future of the Palestinian-Israeli conflict remains anyone's guess. It is easy to feel discouraged about any one person's ability to bring peace globally, no matter how sincere the intention or dedicated the effort. But we can each pursue a little shalom, starting with our homes and the homes of the people we love.

Rabbi Joseph Telushkin advises: "Do you have friends or relatives who are feuding? Before you answer no, … think: Do you know people who are not talking to each other? If so, are you in a position to help them reconcile? If both feel warmly toward you, and trust that you are not prejudiced in favor of the other, can you do something to bring peace, or at least a lessening of tensions, between them? Will you do it today?" ( The Book of Jewish Values, 167) The Talmud famously counts making peace between two people among the mitzvotwhose "reward is without measure." (Shabbat 127a) How great is peace, and how great those who pursue it. Jill Jackson and Sy Miller's famous song from 1955 instructs and inspires: "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me."

Table Talk

1. An ethical dilemma arises when two virtues come into conflict with one another. For instance, the Rabbis acknowledged that in some cases, the virtue of honesty might need to give way to the virtue of peace-hence their teaching about God altering Sarah's insulting words about her husband. Do you accept this premise? Do you think that peace is sometimes a higher virtue than truth, especially when applied to human relationships? Can you think of times when the opposite would be true, when the need for honesty would supersede the need for peace?

2. How could we apply the lyric "Let there be peace on earth, and let it begin with me?" What identifiable steps toward peaceful relations in our own homes could have measurable effects on our wider communities? Can you name certain actions (or actions from which we could refrain) that would make for more harmonious households? More harmonious communities?

3. Can you think of other mitzvot, in addition to peace, that we should actively pursue, instead of waiting for designated opportunities to fulfill them?

Reference Materials

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

Originally published: