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The Pathway to a Daily Jewish Spiritual Practice

  • The Pathway to a Daily Jewish Spiritual Practice

    Tzav, Leviticus 6:1−8:36
D'var Torah By: 

On the first reading, Tzav, which deals with the roles of the Levitical priests, such as when they are to offer sacrifices, what kind of sacrifices they are to offer, their garb, and their ordination, seems like an obscure parashah. It strikes us as obscure, somewhat interesting, but rather out of touch with the modern day. However, on closer reading, we find it to be one of the most profound portions for the spiritual needs and sensibilities of our own generation. Tzav gives us the very structure of prayer as we know it, concerned as it is with the origins of the prayer service and an awareness of the need for a daily spiritual practice.

While the previous portion tells of the different sacrifices to be brought by the people, this parashah speaks directly to the Levites, whose obligation it is to offer the sacrifices. The olah was a daily sacrifice offered on behalf of the entire people. In the Book of Exodus, the Torah prescribes that every day two sheep were to be sacrificed, one in the morning and one in the evening. In Tzav we are told that the kohen, dressed in priestly garb, is to remove the ashes daily from the altar. Then he is told to take off his garb, put on regular clothes, and carry the ashes outside the camp to a clean place.

The daily sacrifices were offered on behalf of the whole nation. At first, just a few wealthy people donated the money for the sacrifices. Later, the rabbis decided that since the sacrifices were offered for all the people, everyone should contribute to them. These sacrifices were paid for by a special fund in the Temple treasury to which every Jew contributed. The rabbis went further. Not only did everyone have to help pay for the sacrifices, every Jew also had to participate in the process of offering sacrifices. However, the Temple was in Jerusalem, and Jews lived throughout Judea. Coming to Jerusalem to help offer sacrifices seemed like an impossible task, given the great distances and the primitive means of travel. The rabbis loved to address problems and tended to think creatively. Thus they divided the country into twenty-four districts (ma'amadot), and assigned every district a special week during a six month period. During the district's special week, a delegation representing the district was physically present as the kohanim offered the daily sacrifices. The rest of that district (ma'amad) gathered in their synagogues at the time the sacrifices were offered, in the morning and evening. Separated by place, they nonetheless felt a deep bond by sharing this time-bound mitzvah. Prayers were recited in the synagogues of the district, and the Torah was read. This became the model for the future practice of daily prayer services in the synagogue.

Each morning and throughout the day, one of the priests would tend the fire of the sacrifice, adding wood when necessary. At first even the wood was contributed by a few wealthy people. The rabbis changed that practice by deciding that all Jews should participate in keeping the altar fire burning. From that time on, we were all called upon to keep the fire burning.

Today we too can't leave Jewish life in the hands of the rabbis, cantors and educators—the modern priests of our synagogue community. It is up to each Jew to become empowered by these godly commands. The gathering of each ma'amad during their assigned week was a daily event in which the entire people participated. Just as the sacrifices were offered daily, so let us ponder how we can incorporate a daily Jewish spiritual practice into our lives.

  1. The rabbis called our home table a mizbe'ach, or an "altar." It's the place at which we meet daily with our family and friends. Let's begin our gathering at the table with a daily ritual, blessing the food we eat and the awareness of God's Presence in our lives. Convening around the table also gives us an opportunity to discuss social justice issues and eco-kashrut and to reconcile with our loved ones.
  2. What about setting aside a time for daily prayer and meditation, as was done with in the ma'amadot, for an offering? Let's ask ourselves as Reform Jews: What are we doing for daily prayer?
  3. Let's consider as well the practice of tzedakah. What acts of tzedakah could we do today in our home, office, or community?
  4. How can Torah with its weekly wisdom permeate our daily lives and our relationships? Take a pearl from your Shabbat Torah learning and incorporate it into your daily life. Work on it during the week. Our Torah emphasizes a daily spiritual practice. As Reform Judaism faces the future, it must recognize that Shabbat is not the only time for Jewish expression.

Finally, we are all responsible for keeping the fire burning. Each of us is like a Levite, empowered by the Divine to bring, to offer, to uplift ourselves to God in our daily lives. Leviticus points us toward Holiness/Kedoshim; we are like God and shall become a holy people. Parashat Tzav shows us the way.

For Further Reading
Jewish Spiritual Practices, Yitzhak Buxbaum (New York: Jason Aronson, 1994).
Minyan: Ten Principles for Living a Life of Integrity, Rabbi Ramie Shapiro ( New York: Bell Tower, 1997).

Rabbi Warren G. Stone is the rabbi of Temple Emanuel, Kensington, MD.


The Clothing Makes the Man
Davar Acher By: 
Maxine Segal Handelman

Yosi arose early in the morning. He went into the kitchen and stoked the fire. He bustled around, gathering ingredients, mixing, frying, preparing the meal for his teachers. Sweat covered his brow, and splashes of food decorated his garments. At last, the meal was ready. Yosi filled the bowls to take to the table and readied the plates and the glasses for the wine. He loaded his tray, but just as he was about to emerge from the kitchen, he was stopped by a fellow student. "Yosi! Have you not studied our Torah at all? Our Torah teaches us good manners: 'And he shall then take off his garments and put on other garments.'" (Leviticus 6:4) From this we are taught that it is unseemly for a person to wear the same garments in the kitchen that he would wear when pouring wine for his teacher. Yosi put down his tray and returned to his room. He exchanged his splattered clothes for fresh garments and proceeded to serve his teachers. (Based on Shabbat 114a and Rashi)

In the opening pesukim (verses) of Parashat Tzav, we witness the kohen embark on a messy task: He must scoop ashes from the previous night's offering and place them next to the mizbe'ach (altar). To do this task, he must first don his finest clothes — "linen raiment, with linen breeches next to his body." But for the task of carrying the ashes outside the camp to a clean place, the kohen changes into "other garments." Why? Exodus 28:43 tells us that the priestly vestments were to be worn only in the precincts of the sanctuary. However, Torat Kohanim (Sifra) points out that these other garments are also ritual garments, albeit inferior to the first set.

We learn from this ritual that it does matter what we wear. We grasp the importance of wearing special clothes in order to prepare for sacred moments like the celebration of Shabbat. The clothes elevate the task. But why wear ritual garments for the messy task of removing ashes? Rabbeinu Bachya ben Asher (thirteenth century, Spain) comments that wearing such garments for the menial task of taking up ashes reminds us that all religious ritual should be carried out in a decorous manner.

Parashat Tzav describes service to God in ways we could not imagine today. But the sincerity and the caring displayed by Moses, Aaron, and the other kohanim are not foreign concepts to us. When we take the time to elevate our outward appearance, our inner connection is strengthened. And when we take care to clear away the old and begin each day anew with a clear heart and an eager readiness, we prepare ourselves not only to better serve God but also to improve our relationships with other people.

For Further Reading
Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Vayikra (World Zionist Organization, 1986)

Maxine Segal Handelman is the author of several books, including The Shabbat Angels (URJ Press, 2003).

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