Parashat Tzav, 5778

A D’var Torah for Tzav
by Rabbi Heidi Hoover ’11

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, continues detailed discussion of the sacrifices, though this week’s text is addressed to the priests and focuses on their duties, while last week’s text was addressed to the Israelite people.

We frequently talk about how alien animal sacrifice is to us now, and it can be very difficult to feel any affinity to these Torah portions. But the Israelites did get something out of the sacrificial system, and one thing I believe they got is something that we still want today. I suggest that the sacrificial system supported communal life.

Everyone knew the rules and followed them. When a person came to make a sacrifice, it was not something they did alone. A person would bring the animal and give it to the priest—so there were at least two people involved. Most likely other priests were also around, and others who had come to make sacrifices.

Later in our history, major times for sacrifice were the three pilgrimage holidays—Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot. They are called pilgrimage holidays because all the Israelites were supposed to shlep to Jerusalem to the temple to make their sacrifices. Just imagine the crowds, the people you’d see three times a year in Jerusalem, the feeling of all being in it together, the feeling of being one big community. That must have been powerful.

Today, prayer has replaced sacrifice. Those of us who pray in community regularly gather in a place that is not central for all the Jewish people, but is central for us. We gather strength from being together. It is true, though, that today a lot of us struggle with prayer as a way of connecting to God. For some, the liturgy reflects a theology that is uncomfortable; for others, the Hebrew is alienating. There is no hint in the Torah that there might have been Israelites who did not find animal sacrifice effective as a connection to God. Most likely, when the practice began, everyone found it deeply meaningful.

It is quite possible, though, that as the centuries passed, sensibilities changed, and some people began to find the sacrifices less effective. Indeed, more than one of our prophets says that God doesn’t want sacrifice, but that we behave ethically. This does not mean that our prophets didn’t believe in the sacrificial system—they did, and most of them were in it. What they were saying is that people were bringing sacrifices in a rote way, and their hearts were not in it—they were just going through the motions.

When people are just going through the motions, whether in the sacrificial system or in the system of offering our prayers, there is a question about how effective that system can be. The ability to connect to God through the system may decrease, but so long as people still come together, the system can still be valuable in building the community. However, if the ritual loses its meaning for the participants, they will eventually stop coming.

The goal in creating new prayerbooks, and of bringing in different ways of talking to God and connecting with God, is to help those who are praying to find meaning in the ritual, ways that the ritual can connect them to God, and connect them to the community.

This week we have a special Shabbat, Shabbat haGadol—the great Shabbat. That is the name given to the Shabbat before Passover—Passover begins the evening of March 30. Passover is a ritual that continues to have meaning for most Jews. It is probably the holiday celebrated by the most Jews in the American Jewish community. We gather with families and friends to share a meal that includes a number of ritual foods.

Though we don’t sacrifice animals anymore, we still want and need community, and the maintenance of community has a place for sacrifice of a different kind. We might have to sacrifice our pride to maintain harmony in our community, perhaps by apologizing for a misunderstanding, even if we believe we are not at fault. We may need to sacrifice by putting aside or postponing something we want for the community if others feel that other priorities are more important. We may have to sacrifice by digging deep to give time or money to our community to help it survive and thrive. These sacrifices are very valuable, and we should notice them and value them when other make them, and if we can, we should consider it a privilege to have the opportunity to make these kinds of sacrifices for the health of our community. Considering it a privilege to make these kinds of sacrifices is sometimes an area of opportunity for growth for me, and I expect it is for some of you as well.

May we all find ways to connect to God through our prayer and through our community, and may we always value the sacrifices we and others make for our communities.

Rabbi Heidi Hoover teaches Conversion at AJR and is the rabbi of Temple Beth Emeth v’Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek and Progressive Temple Beth Ahavath Sholom in Brooklyn, NY. She was ordained at AJR in 2011.