Parshat Tzav (literally an order to “command”) is a difficult part of the Torah. Its major theme is kedushah. It is important to note that the Hebrew word kadosh (which is the adjective for kedushah) can mean two things in English. While it is most commonly translated as “holy,” it also means “separate.” According to the Torah, if something is deemed kadosh, anything touching it shall also become kadosh. Similarly, if something is deemedtameh (“unclean,” the opposite of kadosh) anything that touches it is also considered tameh.
One of the ways in which Tzav teaches about the holiness is by continuing the description of the sacrifices begun in last week’s Torah portion, Vayikra. For example, we learn that there were two somewhat different types of well-being offerings (zevakh shelamim): thanksgiving offerings and free-will offerings. Thanksgiving offerings had to be eaten in a single day. Free-will offerings could be eaten over a two-day period. Tzav also focuses on the specific actions of the priests. For example, once the priest had removed the ashes from the altar, he had to change his linen garments to take the ashes outside the camp. Tzav also gives specific rules for how the priests’ portions of the offerings (namely, the right breast and the right thigh of each sacrificial animal) were to be prepared and eaten. These were viewed as kadosh.
The last part of Tzav describes in detail the consecration ceremony of Aaron and his sons as kohanim. The blood of a ram played a major part in this ritual: “Moses took some of its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot” (Leviticus 8:23). In the next verse, Moses did the same to Aaron’s sons. Using blood in this way gave kohanim special status. Given this emphasis on blood, it is not surprising that this parasha also tells us – for the first time in the Torah – about kashrut. (After Pesah, we will read Parshat Shemini which covers the laws of kashrut in much more detail.) This week, we read of the prohibitions against eating the fat of any animal, against eating animals that have not been ritually slaughtered, and against consuming blood. We are not to eat blood because it is holy. Blood is the source of life since God gives life by enabling blood to flow through our bodies.
We read that “A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.” (Leviticus 6:6). Clearly, this fire was not ordinary. The Talmud teaches (Yoma 21b) that the flames took the shape of a lion and blazed as brilliantly as the sun. According to midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 7:5), it burned continually for 116 years; yet, while it turned the animal bodies to ash, the fire did not melt or scorch either the copper which lined the altar or the wood that was at the altar's core. What kind of fire can burn and produce only selective damage?
Some Thoughts and Questions
The title of this week’s parasha has the same root in Hebrew as the word mitzvah. Although many people think that a “mitzvah” is a good deed, the word mitzvah means “commandment.” List the things that you do that you consider to be mitzvot. Are there any modern observances that you keep, not only because they’re good deeds, but because they are God’s commandments?
What do you think of the concept that touching holy things can make someone holy and that coming in contact with unclean things can make someone unclean? Can we really become like something or someone simply by “touching”? How does this apply to the type of people that we choose to be friends with? If being holy means to be separate, and God wants us to be holy, how do you think God wants us to behave? What can we do to separate ourselves from things that are not God-like? How can we remember to be holy?
Why does the Torah command the kohain to change his clothes after removing the ashes from the altar but before he dumped the ashes outside the camp?
Rashi said that “It is unseemly to wear the same clothing in the kitchen that one would wear when pouring wine for his master.” For this reason, many people wear their best clothing in honor of Shabbat. How did Aaron’s clothing reflect the importance of his job? Is there a difference in the way that you dress when you go to school, to birthday parties, to shul? What does a change in our clothing signify? Sometimes people can’t afford fancy clothing or don’t have the opportunity to change their clothes before doing something important. How can the way we act in those cases show that what we are doing is still important and holy? For example, if these is no kiddush cup available on Shabbat, is it proper to use a dixie cup? (The answer is yes as long as we use it with the reverence due to God for creating the fruit of the vine.) How can our intent elevate ordinary things to a level of holiness?
Rabbi Hertz’ explanation of why the kohanim were touched on their ears, hand and feet tells us that they were reminded to act in accordance with their beliefs and responsibilities. How does what you do with your ears, hands and feet express what you believe? Which part of your body do you use to show what is most important to you?
Perpetual means “always,” “constant.” What does it take to keep a fire burning perpetually? Although the English translation almost always reads “on” it, some rabbis referred to the fire as burning “in” the altar or even “in him”, meaning in the kohain. What do you think it means to have a fire burning constantly within a person? What would have to be burning within the kohain in order to do his job every day? With friendships and special relationships, it can be said that the fire burning within a person’s heart must carefully be tended to keep it from growing cold. How do you tend to your relationships with others? What do you do to keep communications open with your friends and loved ones? How do you feed the sparks of friendship to keep them alive?
Keeping a fire burning perpetually requires a tremendous amount of effort and certainly could not be accomplished alone. What aspects of your Judaism are private and which are public? What do you do to assure that the fires on the “altar” in your own community are kept burning?
According to some commentators, Judaism distinguishes between types of light, acknowledging flames that destroy and flames that create. Our tradition warns us that we need to be careful with our internal fire. In the next Torah portion, Shemini, we read of the result of a fire that burned too intensely and so made people of faith into zealots – believers who crossed the line into sacred territory and so were consumed by their own passions. What are some of the passions that you believe have sustained contemporary Jewish life? What are some of the fires that you see as detrimental to the modern Jewish community?
Describe the most passionate and enthusiastic Jew that you know. How does it feel to be around this person? In what ways is his or her spirit made evident? What are the sources of inspiration for your own Judaism? What do you do to nourish your spirit? What do you do to share your spirit with God? With your community?
According to Leviticus Rabbah 9:7, even if all the sacrifices and prayers were to be discontinued in the Messianic age, the offerings and blessings of thansgiving (well-being) will never stop being given and uttered. There is a whole category of blessings in our liturgy – called Birchot ha-nehinin – which express our thanks for the pleasures we receive through our senses. Many siddurim have a special section containing thesebrachot. Look them up. On what occasions are they recited? Which are the most meaningful to you? Would you add any new ones.