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Parashat Tzav 5776 — 03/26/2016

Parashat Tzav 5776 — 03/26/2016

Vayikra 6:1-8:36

Our parashah continues the discussion of the offerings. Parashat Vayikra indicated what was to be offered. In the case of the olah, “burnt/elevation offering,” everything but the hide was burned on the altar; the hide was given to the kohanim. In virtually all other cases, a small portion of the offering, be it an animal, bird or meal offering, is burnt on the altar, and the rest is eaten, either by the male kohanim serving in the Temple (most sin offerings [chatat], guilt offerings [asham], most meal offerings [minchah]), or shared between the kohanim (and their families) and the one making the offering (peace/wholeness offering [shelamim], thanksgiving offering [todah]).

R. Steinsaltz points out that, although major parts of the offerings are consumed, there are restrictions on this consumption. There are restrictions on place – the chatat and asham offerings must be consumed within the Temple courtyard; the shelamim and todah offerings must be consumed within the walls of Jerusalem (the Old City, roughly speaking, not the whole of modern-day Jerusalem). There are restrictions on who may consume the offerings: chatat and asham offerings are eaten only by male kohanim, specified parts of shelamim and todah offerings are eaten by the kohanim and their families, while the bulk of the meat is eaten by the one who makes the offering, family and guests. Only those who are ritually pure may eat any of the offerings. Finally, there are restrictions on the time in which offerings may be eaten: generally on the day of the offering and the following night (until dawn Biblically, until midnight Rabbinically); the shelamim may also be eaten on the day after the offering.

It is the restrictions on the time that are most fascinating in some ways. An offering that is not consumed by the end of its prescribed period is called notar / “leftovers” and must be burnt. (The Yiddish word for leftovers is ubageblibenes – try to say it 3 times fast!). Eating notar is a serious sin, and can lead to the punishment of karet / spiritual excision; similarly, eating sacrifical meat outside of its prescribed place has the same consequence. However there is another disqualification that applies only to the time restrictions: if one performs the offering with the mere intention to consume them after the allotted time (or have the altar consume) its parts renders the offering piggul / rejected. Anyone who eats of a piggul offering also suffers spiritual excision.

What is the logic behind these rules and restrictions? R. Steinsaltz gives us some background:

As a rule, today as in the past, when people rebel against traditional religious practices, there is usually some kind of benefit or convenience to be gained by doing so. But what can be gained from bringing korbanot [offerings] “on the third day” [i.e. beyond their allotted time]?

The answer to this question can be found in a different verse in this parashah: “Every meal offering brought by a Priest shall be a whole offering: it shall not be eaten” (6:23). …

The simple reason for this is that one cannot bring a korban and partake of it as well. When one brings a meal offering, while a Priest may eat most of it, nevertheless, the person who brought it did so without receiving personal gain. If a Priest were to partake of his own meal offering, it would be as though he gave something to Gd and then sat down to enjoy it, which is the very antithesis of the essence of a korban.

The essence of an offering, of course, is that we are offering something – we are giving something up to Gd. This may be out of contrition for something we did that was wrong, or in gratitude for Gd’s goodness to us. If we partake freely of the offering, it turns it into a party, not a religious experience! In fact, R. Steinsaltz quotes a passage from the prophet Amos where he castigates the people for just this – they would come to the ritual center with a fat cow, “offer” it, and eat the meat for a week! (“But they had no refrigeration!” They salted it, which is a requirement for kosher meat anyway, to draw out the blood.) R. Steinsaltz remarks that the purpose of the time restrictions on those offerings that are eaten is specifically to put some pressure on us, so that we bear in mind that what we are eating is not “ours,” but comes from Gd’s table. Of course, nothing we have is truly “ours” – everything comes from Gd and is given us to use, not to possess, as the verse says (Ps 24:1) The earth is the Lord’s and the fullness thereof; the world and they that dwell therein.

The ultimate reality of any offering – an animal in the Temple or a coin in a pushke, is that we are giving to Gd what is Gd’s already: Give Him from His own, for you and what you have are His. For everything is from Him, and from Your Hand we have given back to You. (Pirke Avot 3:7). Gd is infinite, and although we may think of ourselves as separate from Him, that is not the ultimate reality – it is an illusion created by the limitations of our awareness. When our awareness is fully expanded, and can perceive the infinite in every grain of sand, then we truly can make an offering to Gd of that which is His own, with no attachments, no agendas, nothing held back. The offerings we make now are practice – taking the awareness to that ultimate reality which we hope will one day be a permanent fixture of our life.

Haftarah: Yirmiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23

Chabad Chasidim, who generally follow the Sephardic custom in the Haftarot, skip from 7:29-8:3. In this they appear to be unique, and I don’t know the reason for the omission. Perhaps because it is a very harsh prophecy, even compared to the rebuke that comes before it. Everyone ends with the last two verses, as the Rabbis generally arranged the Haftarot to end on an up-note.

So says Hashem: Let a wise man not glory in his wisdom, nor let the strong one glory in his strength, nor let a wealthy one glory in his wealth. Only in this may one who glories glorify himself: in discerning and knowing Me, for I am Hashem, Who performs kindness, judgment and righeousness in the world; for these are what I desire – the word of Hashem (9:22-23). Artscroll translation.

Gd is the ultimate reality. It is our job as human beings to bring our awareness to a level where we can perceive the ultimate reality in the world. The offerings are one means to this end, but when they lose this purpose and become rote rituals, or worse, opportunities for indulgence, they earn the opprobrium of the prophet (in the verses preceding the ones quoted). All that we do in the world, when we do it in a way that emulates Gd’s attributes of kindness, judgment and righteousness, we start to perceive the world in the way Gd does. When we offer our very Self to Gd, then we, as it were, merge our individuality into Gd’s universality. And this is truly a glorious way to live.