Archive for Tzav

Pesach: Wine of Joy, Wine of Conscience

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tzav and Pesach

This week is Parshat Tzav, which is largely concerned with the
dedication of the priests to serve in the Mishkan (portable Sanctuary)
and also Shabbat Hagadol, so named for a special haftarah (prophetic
reading) which ends with the promise that God will send Elijah the
prophet to announce a “great and terrible day” in which evil is
requited and Israel is restored. The connection to Pesach is the image
of Elijah announcing the coming of the messianic age; Elijah also
shows up at the Pesach Seder, connected with the hope that God will
bring a future redemption even greater than the Exodus from Egypt.

That’s the Torah reading for this week. Next week is Pesach itself,
and Monday night being the first Seder, the Executive Steering
Committee of rabbineal-list made the decision to offer a Pesach
thought now, so that those who wish to bring it to their Seders would
have time to do so. It also happens that the paragraphs written below
were prepared for the spring e-bulletin of the Coalition on the
Environment and Jewish Life (COEJL – linked below.)

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“Wine of Joy, Wine of Conscience”

One of the most well-known customs of the Pesach Seder is to spill or
pour out a drop of wine during the recitation of each of the ten
“plagues” ( the blood, frogs, boils, lice, etc. . . ) There are
various ways this is accomplished: with a spoon, tipping the cup, or
using one’s finger, but the basic point, explained in most printed
Haggadot [Seder booklets], is that our feelings of sweetness and
gratitude (represented by a full cup of wine) are diminished by the
sufferings of others.

Given that the “others” in this case are the very people who enslaved
and oppressed our ancestors, the act of spilling wine is rather
remarkable- it’s not so easy to truly feel that one’s joy is
diminished because of the sufferings of one’s enemy. In fact, the
natural human reaction is the opposite, to rejoice in the sufferings
of one’s enemy; this ritual calls us to confront the moral
implications of believing that all people are “b’tzelem Elohim,” or
made in the Image of God.

Many modern Haddagot provide commentary or alternative readings for
the traditional plagues, often reframing the Biblical story in terms
of modern problems, such as pollution, deforestation, war, famine, and
other social and environmental causes of suffering. The desire to
connect the moral worldview of the traditional Seder ritual with
conditions in the modern world is exactly the goal, but to me, naming
“modern plagues” which diminish our cup of joy sometimes misses a
crucial point, which is that the traditional “ten plagues” caused
suffering to others in order to bring liberation to the Israelites. In
other words, in naming the plagues, we remind ourselves that something
which was good for us had a cost to somebody else. It might have been
a cost demanded by justice, but the suffering of the Egyptians, as
portrayed in the Biblical account, was real and worthy of remembrance.

With that in mind, I’d propose that any naming of “modern plagues” be
oriented towards reminding Seder participants that one person’s
freedom may be another person’s suffering. For example, North
Americans enjoy the opportunity to purchase fruits and vegetables,
flowers, and meats produced abroad, often under brutal labor and
environmental conditions; our luxury is somebody else’s suffering. Our
freedom to drive as much as we like “drives” a world market in oil
with obvious connections to huge political, military, and
environmental problems. Even the clothes on my back may have been
produced in a sweatshop eerily similar to conditions of slavery – and
of course, the meat on many Pesach tables came from animals raised and
slaughtered under conditions which should cause anyone to stop and
think about the cost of their comfort.

Seen this way, the Seder ritual of spilling the wine is a profound
moment of introspection and conscience, confronting each of us with
the reality that in a rapidly globalizing world, one person can never
be disconnected from the systems which literally enslave others and
distress our planet. The good news is that it’s in the celebration of
our freedom that we find the courage to change our ways and work for
social and environmental justice- such freedom is truly something to
celebrate.

Hag Sameach,
RNJL

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Tzav/ Pesach: Dedicated to Hope

Copyright 2011 Neal Joseph Loevinger

Torah Portion: Tzav and Pesach

Well, earlier this week it was snowing, so the words of the old song
went through my head. . . “I’m dreaming of a white Pesach!”

No, actually, I’m not, so it’s good that it’s nicer today, and I can
imagine that it’s going to be springtime in New England very soon. It
is, of course, no coincidence that Pesach comes in the springtime,
the season of new growth and new life. The central message of Pesach
is one of hope for the future, not remembrance of historical
suffering; we recall the slavery in Egypt as prelude to celebrating
the story of redemption, which is itself but a prelude to the story
yet to be told about an even greater miracle of redemption. To me,
fancy-shmancy religious words like “redemption” or “salvation”
express a simple proposition: no matter how bad things are, there is
always the possibility of getting “unstuck” and moving towards good
things like reconciliation, justice, mercy, and healing.

This might be true on an individual, communal, or national level, but
the idea is the same: the Jews were not stuck forever in slavery,
because there is a spiritual force which gets people unstuck from
their circumstances when they open their hearts and minds to courage
and hope, and that spiritual force, which we call God, is always
present to us. Pesach- and indeed all references to the Exodus in
Jewish liturgy and practice- orients us to be constantly hopeful,
constantly aware of greater possibilities for ourselves and our
world.

Now back to our regularly scheduled parsha, Tzav, where I see a
little hint of the Pesach message in the midst of many details about
the dedication of the priests for service in the Mishkan (portable
sanctuary.) Moshe is told to gather Aharon and his sons and make
offerings for a ritual of dedication of the priests, and this ritual
includes something that’s often overlooked:

” The Lord spoke to Moses, saying:’Take Aaron along with his sons,
and the vestments, the anointing oil, the bull of sin offering, the
two rams, and the basket of unleavened bread; and assemble the whole
community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. ‘ ” (Vayikra/
Leviticus 8:1-3)

That’s right, the inauguration of the priests includes “unleavened
bread”- matzah! I have not done much research on this in the
commentaries, but it’s a fascinating image to me: at the moment when
the Israelites are celebrating the completion of the Mishkan, which
allows them to worship their God totally free from the conditions of
slavery, the ritual includes matzah, a symbol of the liberation.
Perhaps Aharon and his sons hold matzah in their hands (cf. verse 26)
as part of the dedication ceremony so that they as leaders will never
forget the Exodus story, and what it teaches about the possibilities
of history.

Alternatively, we can recall this little basket of Mishkan matzah at
our own seders, which deepens our understanding of the matzah as not
just “bread of affliction,” but also as “bread of liberation.” When
we hold up the matzah at our seders, we are like Moshe in the
Mishkan, bringing priests into the service of God and the people,
priests who don’t make agricultural offerings but who are no less
charged with bringing the Divine Presence into our homes and
communities. The Mishkan means that the Israelites were truly free
from Pharoah; our seders are a like a “Mishkan me’at,” a little
Sanctuary, where we are liberated from despair, fatalism, and
cynicism.

Wishing you all a joyous and healthy Pesach,

RNJL

PS- here are some great links:

A summary of the parsha, as well as lots of Pesach info:
http://www.myjewishlearning.com/texts/Weekly_Torah_Commentary/tzav_ind
ex.htm

The full text of the parsha, and a great commentary on the plagues,
is here:

http://www.jtsa.edu/community/parashah/index.shtml

This Shabbat is “Shabbat HaGadol,” the “Great Sabbath,” named for its
special haftarah, which is explained here:

http://www.kolel.org/pages/parasha/torah.shtml

Finally, don’t forget Rabbi Lerner’s great feast of Pesach downloads,
for wonderful seder ideas and inspiration:

http://www.jewishfreeware.org/downloads/folder.2006-01-07.0640323187/

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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)

OVERVIEW

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.

IN FOCUS

” ‘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)

PSHAT

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.

DRASH

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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Tzav 5760

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 5760 and can be found in its archives.

OVERVIEW

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, instructing them on the sacrifices that anyone might bring, but this time, he is specifically addressing the priests, and giving them their particular instructions. New details 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 parasha describes the ceremony wherein Aaron and his sons were dedicated for service as priests.

IN FOCUS

“God spoke to Moshe, saying: ‘Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the law of the elevation offering. . . . . ‘ ”

PSHAT

God gives Moshe instructions to give to Aaron, the High Priest, and Aaron’s sons, who share the hereditary office of the priesthood. The olah, or elevation offering, is also sometimes called the “burnt offering,” because it was totally consumed on the fire of the altar in the Sanctuary. This kind of offering may be voluntary on the part of an individual, or it may be part of an individual’s atonement for not fulfilling certain commandments, or it may be part of communal holy day observances. The olah offerings could be cattle, flock animals, or doves, sometimes depending on a person’s means.

DRASH

Rashi notices something unusual about the first sentence of our Torah portion: why does God tell Moshe to “command” his brother Aaron? Usually, God tells Moshe to “speak” or “tell” the people something. In fact, we could say that this is theologically problematic, because it should be God who “commands,” not human beings!

So Rashi’s interpretation is that “command” implies zealousness, not only in the present tense but for future generations. In other words, don’t just perform this commandment in a perfunctory or apathetic way, but really pay close attention to getting it right. Rashi then goes on and quotes a teaching from the Talmud:

Rabbi Shimon said: There was a special need for the text to urge zealousness in any case where there was monetary loss.

It’s not immediately clear why Rashi connected Rabbi Shimon’s saying to the burnt offerings, other than the idea of urging energetic attention to the specific task under consideration. Rabbi Abraham Twerski, M.D., a Hassidic rabbi, psychiatrist and prolific author, sees in Rashi’s comment an insight into human nature. R. Twerski reminds us that the priest’s livelihood and sustenance was based on receiving a portion of other kinds of sacrifices that were brought on a regular basis. According to R. Twerski, the priests had more than enough to eat from all the sacrifices brought to the Temple; only the burnt offerings were totally consumed in the fire. In other words, the burnt offerings represented a “loss” to the priests in the sense that no part of them was available to the priests as food. Theoretically, that shouldn’t have been a problem, or even a consideration, given that they had so much else from which to sustain themselves.

R. Twerski goes on to propose that the reason the Torah uses the language of “commanding” zealous attention in our verse [according to Rashi’s reading] is precisely that the priests could derive no personal benefit from the olah offerings. It’s not difficult to imagine that the priests paid more attention to the sacrifices that were partially “theirs” than the sacrifices that were a “loss” to them; maybe they even resented having to perform certain rituals purely for others and for God, when so much of their service resulted in immediate material gain for themselves. R. Twerski calls this the trait of “miserliness,” which he defines as an irrational desire for endless material gain- and resentment at the perception of “loss”- even if one’s needs are more than satisfied.

Rashi, as explained above, sees the special “command” of zealous attention as applying not only for the future but for right now. Twerski understand this to mean that even Aaron, the High Priest, who was there with Moshe at the Burning Bush and all the way through the Exodus, even Aaron needed this special urging:

    He [Aaron] had to be urged and cautioned not be derelict in a service which was of no tangible benefit to him.

    Is this even thinkable? Is the High Priest Aaron. . . one who shared Divine communication with Moses, to be suspect that he would be lax in the Divine service because he would not get a piece of meat from it? Is this not the height of absurdity?

    Apparently not. The Torah knows human nature better than we do. In spite of being the greatest scholar and leader, one who is in every other way totally devoted to God, a person may retain a streak of miserliness within himself. The Torah teaches us that no one is immune. Miserliness or stinginess is a character defect which can affect the great and mighty as well as the average person. . . . .Regardless of who or what we are, we are vulnerable humans and subject to the most irrational traits. (Abraham Twerski, Living Each Day , essay on Tzav)

Contained within R. Twerski’s interpretation of our verse is a challenge, a challenge to become more “zealously” generous and truly altruistic. I don’t think this means that we should expect emotional perfection from ourselves; our ability to act in a selfless and giving manner varies from time to time. Rather, I think R. Twerski is asking us to think over those times we’ve secretly resented having to do something for somebody else- or for God- if it didn’t bring us some immediate benefit. Sometimes that benefit is material, and sometimes it is intangible: honor, recognition, power, influence, acclaim. These things are not bad in themselves, but seeking them as the price of “good behavior” can lead to disappointment or anger if they’re not forthcoming.

Thus, even the High Priest was warned: be careful, lest your disappointment at not “getting anything” mar the joyfulness and spirituality of your service. Service to God and others is ideally its own reward, bringing with it the joy of giving and the satisfaction of partnership with God in the work of Redemption.

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