Parshat Tzav: A Drash

By Sid Goldstein

A haggadah with a blue hamsa

“Such are the rituals of the burnt offering, the meal offering, the guilt offering, the offering of ordination and the sacrifice of well-being which the Lord charged Moses on Mount Sinai.”

–  Leviticus 8.37

One of the delights of the Book of Leviticus is the constant barrage of sacrificial details: dead animals, splattered blood, roasted entrails, and eventually, the leftovers — the bones, the rendered fat, and the mounds of ash.

For those not discouraged by such graphic details, the process-minded among us might wonder: at the end of a day of sacrifice, who was in charge of cleaning up?

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, gives us an answer: The charred remains of roasted animals and their entrails were left not to a sacrificial janitorial team, not to the Israelites or Levites, but to the priests themselves – even to Aaron the High Priest.

An open pomegranate

For it was commanded in the Torah, “He [the priest] shall take off his [priestly] vestments and put on other vestments and carry the ashes the outside the camp.“

Rashi helps capture this scene in even greater detail, explaining that due to the huge amount of sacrificial ash and rendered fat, the High Priest would take off his sacred garb and don dirty clothes in order to handle the ashes. The spiritual leader, the intermediary between the people and God, ended each day by cleaning ritual refuse while dressed in rags.

Imagine for a moment the President of the United States taking the Oval Office garbage out to the curb every evening. Imagine Mark Zuckerberg or Bill Gates regularly cleaning out the corporate bathroom after a day of making billions. Here we have even Aaron the High Priest commanded to shovel ash in a shmata. This is what it means to be ‘The Chosen People.’ Let us take a moment to remember Fiddler on the Roof’s burdened milkman Tevye who wisely said, “Couldn’t you have chosen someone else?” But let’s look at the notion of sacrifice – for Parsha Tzav is the most prescriptive discussion of sacrifice in the Torah.

One of the most difficult elements of Torah and the way of life it describes is the phenomenon of animal sacrifice. Modern Judaism has survived without it for almost two thousand years. Virtually all the prophets were critical of animal sacrifice, not least Jeremiah in this week’s haftarah. While none of the prophets sought to abolish sacrifices, they were suspicious of those who offered them. What disturbed the prophets most was that many of the ancient Israelites thought of sacrifice as a kind of bribe: ‘If we make a generous enough gift to God then He may overlook our crimes and misdemeanors.’ Which raises the spiritual question, “is it possible to make God an offer he can’t refuse?”

A person wearing tefillin

What, then, is the idea of sacrifice in Judaism and why does it remain important, even today? The simplest answer is this: We love what we are willing to make sacrifices for. That is why, when they were a nation of farmers and shepherds, the Israelites demonstrated their love of God by bringing Him a symbolic gift from their flocks and herds or, their grain and their fruit; that is, a bit of their livelihood. As Rabbi Jonathan Sachs wrote: “To love is to thank. To love is to want to bring an offering to the Beloved. To love is to give. Sacrifice is the choreography of love.” This is true in many aspects of life. A happily married couple is constantly making sacrifices for one another. Parents make huge sacrifices for their children. People drawn to a calling – to heal the sick, or care for the poor, or fight for justice – often sacrifice financially lucrative careers for the sake of their ideals.

During World War II those now dubbed “The Greatest Generation” made millions of sacrifices for their country. In strong communities people make sacrifices for one another when someone is in distress or needs help. As the writer Toni Morrison said “Sacrifice is the glue of relationships. It bonds us to one another.” That is why, in the Biblical age, sacrifices were so important. To quote Rabbi Sachs again, “at the beating heart of Judaism is love: “For we are commanded You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might.” In many faiths, the driving motive behind sacrifice was fear: fear of the anger and power of the multiple gods. In Judaism it was supposed to be love.

Once we realize there can be a benign element to the idea of sacrifice, we begin to understand how deeply relevant the concept of benign sacrifice is in Western Civilization itself. The two major institutions of the modern world – the democratic state and the market economy – were predicated on the notion of benign sacrifice. This was best described by the idea the social contract formulated by the English political theorist Thomas Hobbes.

Hobbes’ account of the social contract was, in a nutshell, it is in the interest of each of us to sacrifice some of our liberty  to a central power charged with ensuring the rule of law and the defense of all the people. Adam Smith’s insight into the market economy was that while we will always act to maximize our own advantage, we must do so in way that allows the general society to thrive. In short, there must be some governor of our actions. A governor to whom we must willingly sacrifice the worst of ourselves. As Hobbes says, sacrificing the worst of ourselves results in the growth of the commonwealth. This theory of social morality comes straight from Judaism.

Modern politics and modern economics were built on the foundation of the rational pursuit of self-interest governed by the notion of the sacrifice of total freedom. The democratic state and the market economy were serious attempts to harness the power of self-interest to the sacrifice of those passions that lead to mass violence. It is a system, that for better or worse, has sustained the Western World for over four centuries. And how have Jews survived within that system that their morality helped to create? Jews and Judaism have survived due to the many sacrifices people had to make for it.

Judah Halevi

In the eleventh century the great scribe Judah Halevi expressed something close to awe at the fact that Jews stayed Jewish despite the fact that “with a word lightly spoken they could have converted to the majority faith and lived a life of relative ease.” The sacrifice then, is that in both Europe and America, Jews have set limits to their assimilation within the surrounding Gentile world. Among others, The philosopher Baruch Spinoza took note of these limits and the effect they had. He reflected on the hostility that these limits created in the greater Gentile world. That hostility has existed, particularly in Europe, for nearly a millennium. But the hostility against the Jewish decision to set limits on their participation in Gentile society had an unexpected side effect. Spinoza observed in his Theological-Political Treatise that “Gentile enmity has had the ironic effect of preserving Jewish distinctiveness.”

What did this mean in real life? It meant that the Jews’ ongoing adherence to their own set of ritual practices while living under Christian or Muslim regimes guaranteed a permanent minority status. This sacrifice of comfort and – even acceptance – marks the distinct trait of our people’s adherence to the principles, if not the physical actions referred to in Parsha Tzav. God’s commandment to Moses to perform the rituals of the burnt offering, the meal offering, the guilt offering, the offering of ordination and most of all, the sacrifice of well-being, echoes down from Mount Sinai to Sof Ma’arav in 2020. We continue the practice of sacrificing a bit of our time, a bit of our treasure and a bit of individual liberty, to sustain this observant community here in Hawaii. And we will continue to do so until, as Tevye, requested, the Lord chooses “someone else.”

Zero Mosyel in Fiddler on the Roof