This week’s parashah, Tzav, concentrates on the offerings required of the Israelites for the daily upkeep of the temple. The first seven chapters of the Book of Leviticus can be looked at as an operations manual, as it gives the specific instructions to the priests of how they should conduct sacrifices in ancient times.
The kohanim, the high priests, are told how to prepare and present offerings for the entire community and how to facilitate those offerings for purification, which only they can do. Tzav recounts in great detail our ancient system of daily sacrifices that were offered by the priests as proxies for the people and sets forth the procedures for the different types of sacrifice.
Since the destruction of the temple in 70 CE, the sacrifices, these offerings, were replaced by prayer, and the question is asked…do the descriptions and commandments concerning the sacrifices still have meaning to us? As they are now obsolete, is there anything to be learned from them? Tzav, with all of the details of sacrifice in the ancient sanctuary and temple presents us with challenges – how to find relevant meaning in those obsolete rituals.
The specific verses I chanted speak of the zevach sh’lamim, the sacrifice of well-being. Today we refer to it as the todah, a voluntary thanksgiving offering. And we learn that cakes of both leavened and unleavened bread, soaked with fine oil, were offered for that thanksgiving.
The rabbis taught that when the messiah or messianic time arrived, the atonement sacrifices - the burnt, sin, and meal offerings – would cease, but the thanksgiving offering would endure. In the 2nd century, Rabbi Meir taught that the Zevach Sh’laminm the peace offering, was mentioned last to emphasize the importance of peace, of Shalom. He and other rabbis of the time believed that peace is the culmination of all blessings and the most important for humans. For those rabbis, that the Torah mentions this one after all the others was proof of their claim. Today, more than ever, the prayer for peace is uppermost in our thoughts --- peace for us, for our families, for our country, and for the world.
But the Todah, the verses I chanted, is more than a peace offering. It IS a prayer of thanksgiving. In Psalm 107, we are taught that there are four types of individuals who must give thanks in public –those saved from the wilderness, those freed from prison, those who have recovered from illness, and those rescued from the perils of the sea. They were to give thanks for God’s loving kindness, to acknowledge the miracles God performed, and to make offerings of thanksgiving, recounting with rejoicing, what God had done for them.
Again we might ask - In our modern world, what meaning do those rules have for us? After all, we no longer have a temple in Jerusalem where we are obliged to make sacrifices. We do not have Kohanim to perform rituals on our behalf. Instead, it is incumbent upon each of us to form our own connection with God through prayer, righteous acts, and study.
Why shouldn’t we all give thanks – either in public or in private – for the same things – for God’s loving kindness and for the miracles God performs.
This Shabbat is called Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Sabbath. Is it a coincidence that we read parashah Tzav each year on the Shabbat preceding the celebration of Pesach? Rabbi Gerald Kane says it is more than a coincidence - and suggests that the Torah and the Jewish calendar send us a very strong message – that as we rid ourselves of the chametz of old habits we are given a chance to begin anew, to pay closer attention to the details of our lives.
In ancient times the sacrifices were at the core of Israel’s relationship with God. But, relationships change, and in today’s world, the way in which we approach sacrificing is very different than the ancients. I like to think that even those of us who may not agree that those rules and rituals in Tzav have meaning for us, can find meaning in the rules and rituals of Pesach.
Perhaps this is the connection between the ritual Thanksgiving offering in Tzav and the Pesach seder we will be celebrating next week. After all, if we do it right, we are expressing Thanksgiving through sacrifice – giving up chametz to remember the great miracle of being taken out of slavery. In tzav, we are reminded that the sacrifice of the peace offering is for a thanksgiving and, the person offering the todah is to give cakes of bread made without yeast, matzot. As the Torah commands us to offer sacrifices, the Haggadah that we will use next Friday evening, no matter which version, also gives us commands – to tell the story of the exodus and to observe the Pesach as though we were there.
In 1974, when Rabbi Herbert Bronstein edited the then new Union Haggadah, he wrote that the originial Haggadah, written in the 1st century CE, came at a time when Judaism was wrenched from its roots and splintered within its ranks. He reminded us that Judaism had been a sacrificial system, whose religious festivities revolved around a series of cultic acts performed by the priestly class within the Jerusalem temple. With the destruction of the temple and the splintering of the Jewish community into disparate sects – the past severed and rival factions competing for the right to determine the present, the need for a definitive interpretation of Judaism was felt. This was offered by the Haggadah ---
-- Jews were able to convene annually to recall their past, explain their present, and envision their future. Rabbi Bronstein further explained that in his Haggadah, he tried to bring about mitzvah l’Shem Shamayim, a free-will offering to the Highest. I choose to believe that this is no different than the Zevach sh’lamin, the free-will offering of Thanksgiving of so long ago. And that the sacrifices we choose to make today, regardless of what they are and why we choose to make them, are of our own free will.
May we all, always have the ability to thank God in whatever way we choose, for Shabbat, for Pesach and all of our festivals, for our health, for our family and friends --- for all that we are and all that we will be.