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.
- 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.
- 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?
- Let's consider as well the practice of tzedakah. What acts of tzedakah could we do today in our home, office, or community?
- 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.