This week’s Voices is written by Joanne Loiben who is a 2nd year rabbinical student at HUC-JIR in LA. Joanne is one of 6 students who are receiving YES Fund scholarships this year from WRJ.
Parshat Tzav is meant to grab your attention. This Torah portion begins as God tells Moses to command Aaron and his sons, the priests, specific instructions regarding a variety of sacrifices. The striking technique is the use of word tzav itself, literally meaning “command.” (Leviticus 6:2) This is one of the rare cases where God tells Moses to command, as opposed to a less forceful verb such as daber, meaning “say.”
As a former sixth grade teacher, I have a great understanding and appreciation for this technique. If I had specific instructions that would be crucial for the students to know, I would clap a rhythm that my students would then repeat. This was their signal to pay attention. Similarly, this summer as a tour educator for a bus of 16 year-olds in Israel, we were taught that in emergency situations, we must communicate in short and loud phrases that convey specific instructions such as “stop now!” or “follow me!” Saying either of those phrases in a meek tone would have been significantly less effective in grabbing the attention of a crowd.
Now the question becomes: what is so important about the following words to which the text calls our attention? Directly after our interest is peaked with the variance in God’s command to Moses, the ritual of the burnt offering is explained. However, the word for ritual used here derives from the root torah, which means “teaching.” (Leviticus 6:2) The teaching in this case is specifically about the sacrifices, which was one of the central elements of Judaism in the desert as well as in Temple times. Therefore, the instructions are essential, as these are offerings to God. As the Torah portion continues, the specific instructions to the priests become broadened to all of the Israelites, as the word used to follow the laws of the sacrifices becomes nefesh -- the feminine noun which includes both women and men. (Leviticus 7:27) This dictates the importance of the sacrifices to all of the people in the community.
In 2017, we no longer make sacrifices according to the particular laws given in Parshat Tzav. However, we can still draw meaning from these commands. The ritual or “torah” today can still refer to the sacrifices we must make, just like those commanded to the people of Israel in Leviticus. While our sacrifices no longer include offerings of animals, they can include the sacrifices of our time and resources. There are plenty of ways to give symbolic offerings to God. Just this past week, I went with my religious school students to visit St. Joseph’s Center in Venice, California, and I witnessed the incredible sacrifices people give from their time, money, and resources to help those in need in our community. The efforts of these dedicated people who volunteer with this organization are an example of the countless ways we can bring gifts to God. The Torah explains that all of Israel, kol nefesh, has the obligation to partake in the sacrifices, and I believe that it is just as important today to discover how we can sacrifice a portion of our time and resources for the greater good. Just as God and Moses commanded the attention of Aaron and his sons to listen carefully for the instructions to sacrifice, so too for the modern readers, we can understand this as a call to stop and think about why this might be a significant command for us as well.