Tzav 5761

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tzav

This d’var Torah was originally distributed by Kolel: The Adult Center for Jewish Learning during the year 5761 and can be found in its archives.

Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)


The first part of Parshat Tzav deals with various kinds of korbanot [sacrifices or ritual offerings] that we’ve already heard about in the previous portion. The difference is that last time, Moshe was addressing the entire people, telling them about the sacrifices that anyone might bring, but this time, he is specifically addressing the priests, and instructing them in the details. This include the service of taking the ashes from the Mishkan out of the camp; rules for the eating of meat; and keeping the “eternal flame” going on the altar. The second part of the parsha describes the ceremony wherein Aaron and his sons were dedicated for service as priests.

This parsha also usually coincides with Shabbat HaGadol, the “Great Sabbath,” which is another name for the Shabbat immediately before Pesach. On Shabbat HaGadol, a special haftarah, or passage from the prophets, is read. This passage from the book of Malachi calls on Israel to be faithful to the God Who has never abandoned them, and ends with a promise to send Elijah the prophet on that “great and awesome day” of future messianic redemption.


” ‘So I will come near to you for judgment. I will be quick to testify against sorcerers, adulterers and perjurers, against those who defraud laborers of their wages, who oppress the widows and the fatherless, and deprive aliens of justice, but do not fear me,’ says the Lord. . . . . ‘Return to me, and I will return to you,’ says the Lord.

But you ask, `How are we to return? ‘ “

“Will a man rob God? Yet you rob me. “But you ask, `How do we rob you?’ In tithes and offerings. . .

Bring the whole tithe into the storehouse, that there may be food in my house. Test me in this,” says the LORD Almighty, “and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it. ” (Malachi 3:5-10, abridged)


The prophet Malachi- literally, “My messenger”- urged the people to embrace a holistic piety, one that combined observance of ritual commands with ethical sensitivity. The prophet senses that the people lack faith in God’s justice, and see no point in acting justly; thus, the overarching message of Malachi is that God is indeed a God of justice, and we are all called to that high standard.

The image of “robbing” God by not bringing proper tithes, or contributions, to the Temple illustrates this ideal of ethical and ritual piety in perfect balance. Tithes of produce were brought to the Temple not only as a ritual demonstration of gratitude for the blessings of the land, but also as a kind of redistributive tax, because there was a portion of these tithes that supported the priests (the civil servants of their day) and the poor. Thus, one “robbed” God by refusing to contribute for the common good of society. The prophet urges the people to make this “leap of action” by bringing tithes, and says that giving to others will never cause one to be poor.


So what does the prophet Malachi have to do with Pesach? The simplest explanation is that Malachi reminds us to prepare ourselves for a future redemption, just as our Pesach seder reminds us that the Exodus from Egypt is just a “preview” of the great redemption to come. (See our Reb on the Web archives for more on this theme.)

On the other hand, Malachi also reminds us, in no uncertain terms, that ritual without ethics is empty- this is a very timely reminder before Passover, with all of the cleaning and cooking and special commandments. The prophets never tell us to feed the poor instead of observing the mitzvot [commandments], but tell us that feeding the poor, protecting the powerless, and promptly paying the workers is a necessary precondition to religious observance. So maybe the ancient rabbis chose this passage to send us a message: don’t spend so much time preparing for Pesach that you forget about the poor and needy and powerless.

At the very least, I think Malachi challenges us to observe simple customs like ma’ot chittin, or special charity for Passover, and inviting guests (especially those who may have nowhere else to go, like students, the elderly, or immigrants) to our Seder. The Shabbat HaGadol haftarah puts it very clearly as a matter of religious faith: giving of your resources brings you blessing, not insecurity. You might even say that the opportunity to give is a blessing and a gift in itself.

Finally, notice the theme of “returning” to God in our passage. Usually, we think of “returning,” or tshuvah, as a theme of the High Holidays, not of Pesach. Yet chametz, or leavened bread, is often compared to arrogance or selfish inclinations. Thus the menial work of cleaning out our cupboards of chametz is sometimes seen as a kind of meditational opportunity to “clean out” our inner selves of undesirable character traits.

To put it another way, cleaning out our cupboards should be accompanied by cleaning up anything that gets in the way of our spiritual growth. Just as the High Holidays provide us with a big challenge of introspection and self-appraisal, Passover too can be understood as a kind of spiritual “Spring Cleaning,” looking inward at the same time as we examine our physical surroundings.

The entire faculty, staff, and board of Kolel wishes all of our friends and supporters a joyous Passover- may you blessed with liberation, celebration, and the joys of springtime.

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