Thursday, April 06, 2006

Tzav (Torah)

I always find a certain difficulty in getting a “handle” on Parshat Tzav. Basically, it is composed of two “tails”: two sections which complement or are secondary to other, adjacent sections. Chapters 6-7 consists of a series of miscellaneous parshiyot, brief paragraphs filling in various details not contained in the overall presentation of the laws of sacrifices in Chapters 1-5. Thus, we have the law about the maintenance of the fire on the altar at all times; the priests’ initiatory meal offering; laws concerning the ritual sanctification caused by any contact with the flesh of the sin offering, such as its gravy accidentally being splashed on clothing or the pots in which it was cooked (from which we hear for the first time of the well-known principle of kashrut, which often seems strange to people outside of the halakhically observant community: namely, that non-kosher status is conveyed both to and via cooking and eating utensils and dinnerware, and not only through the food itself); prohibitions against eating certain kinds of fats and against eating blood; details about the disposal of the meal-offerings, the peace-offering, etc.

The second half of this portion (Leviticus 8) describes the beginning of the process of initiation of the Aaronide priesthood: the seven days of “filling their hands” (milu’im), followed by the eighth, climactic day of their actual installation as priests and the wearing of the priestly garments (which is only described in Ch. 9, i.e., in next week’s portion). These chapters involve a double problem, in terms of the arrangement of the Torah: first, it is a nearly verbatim repetition of Exodus 28: like the other chapters in Exodus 25-40, each section is repeated twice, once as instruction, and a second time to indicate the execution of the command (only here the second time is carried into a new book of the Torah). The second problem is more perplexing: the account of the completion of the Sanctuary is retold three separate times, in three different ways: first, the actual setting up of the Sanctuary by Moses, related at the end of Exodus (39:32-40:38); second, the same occasion, described in terms of the initiation of the priests and their sacrifices, in these chapters; and again a third time, in the Book of Numbers, when it describes the gifts of the twelve princes of the tribes, on twelve successive days (Num 7), together with eight parshiyot, eight halakhic sections, which according to tradition were given “on that very day” (see Gittin 60a-b).

I have no particular new insights into these problems; I present them merely as outline, to articulate the difficulties involved in this Torah portion, and to guide the reader to some of the questions that need to be asked.

I would like to mention one theme developed by some Hasidic teachers, in a more metaphorical reading of this section. “Fire shall be kept burning on the altar continuously; it shall not go out” (Lev 6:13). Each morning the priests removed the ashes from the offerings that had been consumed during the previous day and evening, leaving a small heap in the middle of the altar, and set out fresh wood for the new day. Hasidic teachers learn from this that the first step in ones daily divine service must be to “clean off the ashes”—to remove all physical, mental and spiritual waste left from the previous day; and to “kindle the fire”—to reawaken the hidden place within ones soul and heart that is constantly burning with desire to serve God with all ones being.

On a more mundane level, the fire on the altar utilized logs that were brought by various families. This korban etzim, “wood offering,” was traditionally brought by each family or clan on the same day every year. This seemingly humble offering was perceived as an act of great importance, symbolizing as it did each family’s direct involvement in the Temple service, and was observed as a semi-holiday for that clan.


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