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Parashat Tzav 5782

March 17, 2022

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A D’var Torah for Parashat Tzav
By Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (’11)

This week’s parasha begins with a command to offer an olah, a burnt offering. The olah was not offered to expiate guilt or express thanksgiving. No explanation is given for it, and unlike other sacrifices, no part of the olah was kept to feed the priests or the family who offered it.

According to Leviticus Rabbah 7:3, ain ha’olah ba’ah ela al hirhur halev, the olah is only brought because of the doubts of the heart. Perhaps those doubts arise from a sense that we may have sinned and do not know it. Or perhaps, we have failed to express thanks and must rectify the omission.

Or, alternatively, as I learned from my teacher, Rabbi Jill Hammer, the olah is offered as a result of personal fear, and the sacrifice is an effort to strengthen one’s relationship with God, to form a deeper bond, and to ease that fear.

A few verses further, Leviticus 6:5-6 contain a doubled command to light an eternal flame upon the altar. In the first instance, Leviticus 6:5, we are instructed that an eternal fire should be lit and tended daily by the priest, not to go out. In Leviticus 6:6, we get an apparent repetition, an eternal fire should be lit, do not put it out! Our tradition reads these two verses as two sides of the same mitzvah. The first command is a positive command, a “thou shalt.” The second command is a negative one, a “thou shalt not.” First, “make a fire.” Second, “don’t put it out.” The person who extinguishes the flame is therefore guilty of transgressing two mitzvot, both the positive one and the negative.

But why should Torah expend so much energy repeating this command with minor variation?

The Talmud provides this explanation in Yoma 21b:

Even though the fire descends from the Heavens, it is a commandment to bring it also from commoners. [Do not say that they are bringing fire simply to perform sacrifices which require fire.] This is a commandment on its own. Besides the fire for the sacrifice, they would place fire on the altar for this commandment.

Returning to the first commandment of our parasha, we open with these words: “Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering….”

Rashi comments on this first word, “Command,” “Tzav.” He writes that this word, unlike other introductions to commands, implies a fierce urging to carry out the command, to carry it out at once, as well as an indication that the command is in force for all time. Despite knowing that no command to offer sacrifices is binding on Jews today, one can imagine Rashi suggesting that we are urged to make some kind of offering even today, just as we have taken on the commandment to keep an eternal flame lit above the ark throughout time. This sacrifice, motivated by our own doubts of the heart, may hopefully lead us to a deeper bond with the Divine and an easing of our fear.

This is what all of our rituals are for, at their core. They remind us that we are connected to something bigger than ourselves, whether we call that God, our families, our communities, or all of humanity and creation. They are an act of casting ourselves out toward the universe in the hopes of making a connection and ending our personal sense of disconnection.

Feeling connected to the sense of urging, as Rashi suggests, may help guide us toward the rituals and sacrificial acts which will help us connect more deeply to those around us. These acts also help us become spiritually resilient, so that we experience less fear and less doubt as we move into the future.

Keeping the flames burning requires not just sacrificial acts, but the daily maintenance of the fires as the priests once performed in the Tabernacle and Temple. If we are able to continue to bring wood for the fire each day, we encourage momentary sparks of inspiration and connection to develop. If we fail to bring the wood, those sparks may never arise. For me, the daily bringing of wood (blessings, kashrut, tzedakah, acts of kindness) is the deepest spiritual act we can do and the essence of living a religious life connected to something much larger than myself.
Rabbi Ariann Weitzman (AJR 2011) is the Associate Rabbi and Director of Congregational Learning for Bnai Keshet Reconstructionist Synagogue in Montclair, NJ.