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Parashat Tzav 5780

April 3, 2020

An Offering of the heart
A D’var Torah for Parashat Tzav
By Rabbi Jill Hammer

Parashat Tzav deals with the offerings that the priests and the people made in the Tabernacle for the purposes of gratitude, atonement, and daily celebration. These offerings included the olah (an offering entirely burnt), the minhah or meal-offering, the zevah shelamim—a celebratory offering where part was given to God and people ate the rest—and the hatat and asham, two kinds of sin offerings. This week, my attention was particularly drawn to the olah, the offering that is completely burned. I want to explore three ways the olah might be relevant to us at this moment.

First, to me, the olah offering, an offering that is entirely given over, speaks to the powerful offerings that doctors, nurses, midwives, EMTs, and other medical workers are making right now as they serve those who are ill even at risk to themselves. This offering speaks, to me, of the offerings grocery workers and delivery people are making as they come in to work, and the offerings of parents who are suddenly homeschooling their children. An olah is an offering entirely given over—a sacrifice without self-interest.

Unlike many other offerings, neither the layperson nor the priest receives any part of the olah to eat. In that sense, it is “lost” to the one who offers it. Rabbi Menachem Nachum Twersky of Chernobyl, the Me’or Eynayim, understands the olah as something we can do in daily life: “When a person suffers financial loss, this can be understood as like an olah-offering, because the law of the olah-offering is that it can rise up completely for the sake of God, in fear and trembling.” This isn’t, in my book, to say that all of people’s losses have to be given meaning or that we somehow need those losses or deserve them. To me, this teaching can mean that if we choose, we have the opportunity to understand offerings of our time and energy to others, even under difficult circumstances, as a way we show gratitude to God for the gift of life. Those of us who are essential workers and/or are volunteering to care for others are making such an olah. Even those of us who are serving others just by staying in our homes and avoiding becoming vectors for infection are making an offering that is meaningful. We are giving a gift to others, and to God’s world as a whole. We can consider this gift an olah, an offering that rises to the level of holiness.

Second, the olah is relevant to our practices of intention at this time. Rabbi Nachman of Breslov understands the olah as signifying prayer, which, like a burnt-offering, rises up to God. He suggests that the parashah’s words “this (zot) is the law of the olah” (Lev. 6:2) indicate that the prayer makes space for the Divine Presence. Prayer has this power when “we serve God with our whole heart.” In Rebbe Nachman’s point of view, the olah offering signifies something we do with our full intention, without holding anything back. This too can be a lesson for this moment. Many of us are praying with our communities, teaching, working, and learning in new ways as a result of the current situation. This has been wonderful in many ways, and it also hasn’t been easy. It is good to be reminded, amid all this change, that what matters as we pray and learn is not the perfection of the form but our intention and the heart that we put into what we do. When we serve the One with a whole heart, that service rises up and strengthens the Shekhinah.

And, there is a third way that the olah is relevant to us now. Leviticus Rabbah 7:3 offers the following principle: “ain ha’olah ba’ah ela al hirhur halev” – the olah only comes out of doubts of the heart. In other words, this interpretation suggests, people make an olah, an offering to God, when they are worried about something. This reading suggests that the olah offering is not for atonement (like the hatat) or gratitude (like the shelamim) but rather it is offered when a person feels fear about something. The offering comes to strengthen the relationship with God and to ease the heart of the person who feels afraid. As many of us are feeling anxiety and uncertainty about ourselves, our loved ones, and the world, perhaps our prayers at this time are like an olah that is offered in a time of uncertainty. We can hope that our prayers, study, and mutual care at this time will comfort us in our time of anxiety, and perhaps bring us spiritual strength in a difficult moment.

Parashat Tzav tells us of the ancient offering practice of gifts made on an altar. Today’s offerings are often made through our hearts, our words, and our hands: in our houses, at our places of work, in our prayer spaces whether in-person or on-line. These offerings which are made sometimes in fullness of heart and sometimes with great doubt, sometimes willingly and sometimes because we have no choice. As we read of the olah, the offering that entirely rises to heaven, may we honor the offerings that we and others are making at this very moment.
Rabbi Jill Hammer, PhD, is the Director of Spiritual Education at AJR. She is the author of several books, including The Hebrew Priestess: Ancient and New Visions of Jewish Women’s Spiritual Leadership, Sisters at Sinai: New Tales of Biblical Women, and The Jewish Book of Days: A Companion for All Seasons—as well as the forthcoming Return to the Place: The Magic, Meditation, and Mystery of Sefer Yetzirah.