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Parashat Tzav 5781

March 25, 2021
Click HERE for an audio recording of this D’var Torah
A D’ver Torah for Parashat Tzav
By Rabbi Michael Rothbaum (’06)

At my shul, there are indications that we’re still in “Covid times.” With cameras and control panels, the sanctuary looks like a recording studio. We still have hand sanitizer dispensers all over the building. And, in the corner, there’s a cart of siddurim with a sign instructing people not to touch them.

This last one, of course, makes no sense. The cart is from a year ago. We swiped it from the library — much to the chagrin of the shul librarian — and put it in the sanctuary. At the time, we asked people who were still coming into the building to leave used siddurim on the cart, where we would leave them for two weeks, until they were safe to use again.

Remember those early days of Covid? When we afraid to touch anything?

Since then, we’ve learned a lot — more than we ever wanted to know about infectious diseases. We’ve learned phrases like “fomite transmission,” learning that Covid is very unlikely to be transmitted by touching a siddur. We’ve learned it wasn’t the siddurim, but particles in our own breath that were the danger.

So much fear, and so much of it mistaken and misplaced.

The dangers around us, both touched and untouchable, permeate the second parasha in Leviticus, parashat Tzav. Intricate sacrificial rituals, the province of the priests, are described in exacting detail.

The great blessing of the ritual, the promise of connection with God, is tinged with danger. We see this immediately, in the opening verses of Tzav. The text teaches that the priests’ first task of each weekday was to remove the ashes from the offering sacrificed the previous day.

In this ritual, known as the terumat hadeshen — “the offering of the ashes” — the priest laid those ashes right next to the altar. Terumah is an offering, but it literally means “uplifting.” In the Torah service, we call God a Ruler ram venisa, “high and exalted.” What a blessing for the priest to get to lift up even the residue of the sacrifice to exalted status.

But the ashes had to be handled with care. The priest first placed them next to the altar, presumably allowing them to cool, before changing clothes and removing them outside of camp. Separate clothes, we imagine, created a barrier to protect the priest or the Mishkan, or both, from contamination.

It’s no scandal to say that these opening parshiyot of Leviticus are not exactly beloved. The details of the Levitical sacrificial system are often decried as boring. And yet, the boredom we feel reading through these rituals may be a defense mechanism, buffering us from the warning implied by all that detail: get it wrong, and you’re literally playing with fire. In next week’s parasha, Nadav and Avihu will learn this lesson the hard way.

The Izhbitzer rebbe, in his Torah commentary Mei haShiloah, sees a reference to that danger in the terumat hadeshen. Noting the extensive Talmudic discussion about this ritual— the Talmud requires the priest to lay the ashes down “gently,” so that they “don’t scatter” — the Izhbitzer understands this as a warning of the danger inherent in the ceremony.

“The ritual,” he explains, “hints at fear.”

The Izbitzer continues, teaching that fear is crucial in this world, because it is the mechanism by which we check our worst instincts. And this past year, our fears have caused many of us to reevaluate our priorities. We’ve given renewed attention to the safety of our friends and loved ones. Synagogues have been buoyed by generous donors afraid to lose their Jewish social and religious homes. Even the nation’s lawmakers, once all too willing to shred basic economic support for their own voters, suddenly found the resolve to provide funding for public health and sustenance for impoverished kids.

These are all, of course, welcome developments. But fear can only motivate us for so long. Countless mental health professionals in the past year have reported increased incidence of anxiety, insecurity, and fatigue. As with the priest, tensely immersed in the task of safeguarding the ashes of the burnt offering, the terror of the tenuous moment focuses us at the cost of exhaustion. Fear of getting sick makes us tired. Being tired is its own sickness.

Thank God, the there is an alternative to the enervating burden of constant fear and vigilance. Yes, the attribute of fear helps us focus. “In the future, however,” predicts the Izhbitzer, “the attribute of love will predominate.”

What he means by that is unclear. Is this vision of the future a reference to moshiahtzeit, a time of peace heralded by the prophet Elijah? Or is it a time of a change in consciousness, when humans will turn from anger and severity to compassion and love?

The Izhbitzer doesn’t tell us. Regardless, as we approach Shabbat haGadol, what a sweet vision to take into Pesah. Imagine a world in which we were compelled to uphold our most cherished values, not out of Pharaonic fear of plagues, but out of deep and profound love.

May we sustain and nurture the memory of those we’ve lost this past year.  May the emotional burdens we’ve been bearing dissipate. And may we cultivate a world of wonder and blessing, provoked not by fear, but elevated by love.
Rabbi Michael Rothbaum (’06) is spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Elohim in Acton, Mass. He serves on the advisory boards of the Jewish Alliance of Law and Social Action (JALSA) and the New England Jewish Labor Committee, and is a member of T’ruah: The Rabbinic Call for Human Rights. He lives in Acton with his husband, Yiddish singer Anthony Russell.