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Parashat Tzav 5780 — 04/04/2020

Parashat Tzav 5780 — 04/04/2020

Vayikra 6:1-8:36

And the LRD spoke unto Moses, saying: Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the law of the burnt-offering: it is that which goes up on its firewood upon the altar all night unto the morning; and the fire of the altar shall be kept burning thereby. And the priest shall put on his linen garment, and his linen breeches shall he put upon his flesh; and he shall take up the ashes whereto the fire hath consumed the burnt offering on the altar, and he shall put them beside the altar. And he shall put off his garments, and put on other garments, and carry forth the ashes without the camp unto a clean place. And the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning thereby, it shall not go out; and the priest shall kindle wood on it every morning; and he shall lay the burnt-offering in order upon it, and shall make smoke thereon the fat of the peace-offerings. Fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continually; it shall not go out. (6:1-6)

Or haChaim begins his exposition with a long discussion of some of the halachic aspects of our passage, what may go up to the altar and what may not, what may stay on the altar even if it’s brought up improperly, and what must be brought back down, etc. He then turns to a more hidden, allegorical meaning. He describes how the passage hints at the process of exile and redemption. The passage is quite long and I’ll just quote some representative sections.

According to the approach of remez (“hints”), the entire passage alludes to the final exile, in which we find ourselves, to comfort our tormented souls, for the soul of every Jew refuses to be comforted upon seeing how long the exile has lasted [RAR: starting with the destruction of the 2nd Temple in the year 3828, or 1952 years ago].

Although Or haChaim goes on and bemoans many of the purely physical aspects of the exile – including the pogroms, inquisitions and holocausts – it seems to me that it is the exile of the soul with which he is primarily concerned. The exile is painful to the soul, even in cases where physical conditions are good, because the essence of the exile is estrangement from Gd, and this, obviously, is felt most by the soul. In those cases where the body’s comfort anesthetizes the soul to the point where it doesn’t feel that it is in exile, Hashem generally arranges enough bodily discomfort to wake us up.

This is the teaching of the one that ascends [RAR: ha-olah = literally “the ascender”] – the verse uses the word “this” to exclude all other ascents from exile, for there is no ascent like this one. It then goes on to clarify to whom this is referring – it says it is the one that has already ascended [that is, the Jewish people, who already ascended from Egyptian exile]. … [and it goes on to describe “the one who ascends” as being] on the flame, on the Altar. This refers to two characteristics of the Jewish people. The first is that we are learned in Torah … and the second is that we are afflicted by exile, suffering and poverty.

Or haChaim here refers to two well-known ideas: that Torah study saves one from negativity, and that suffering atones (the way the Altar allows us to atone for our sins by bringing offerings).

In these few paragraphs I am certainly not going to be able to deal with the issue of why Gd allows us to suffer, especially the righteous among us. However, Torah does tell us that suffering comes from violation of Gd’s Will. We believe that Gd wants the universe to function in a specific way, towards specific ends, which we cannot grasp with our human intellect. If what we do moves creation in this progressive direction, we experience happiness; if otherwise, we experience suffering. If there is enough violation of Gd’s Will in society it may be that the society as a whole suffers, the righteous along with the wicked. The Sages express it thus: “When the destroyer is given free rein, he makes no distinctions.” The reaction is in the nature of a corrective for the distortion or dislocation that is created by improper behavior. If this distortion is great enough, the reaction is correspondingly great, and everyone suffers. An example from today’s headlines – in one day a few days ago (mid-March 2020) 60 Italian doctors died of the coronavirus they had been so heroically battling.

How does Torah study protect us? As we have argued on a number of occasions, Torah is structured in the transcendent. It is a record of the most fundamental laws of creation – an expression of Gd’s Will. On the surface, it tells us how to behave so we will not violate Gd’s Will and thereby create suffering. Real Torah study, however, is supposed to go much deeper than simply an intellectual understanding. We need to internalize Torah, to make Torah ours. The way we can do that is to bring the awareness to the transcendental field where Torah actually resides. This internalization of Torah allows us to act spontaneously in accordance with Gd’s Will, because it is imbibed in the very structure of our awareness. And, as in the opposite case, if enough of the people have this kind of awareness, they will create a society in which everyone will be uplifted to a level of harmony and happiness. And I think this is the great “ascent” that Or haChaim is describing, an ideal society in which suffering is a thing of the past.

Our verse concludes: all night until the morning. The night is the time of the darkness of exile, ignorance and separation from Gd. The morning is a time of light, awakening into total knowledge and closeness to Gd. The more we can do to internalize Torah, the shorter and less difficult will be the night, and the quicker we will emerge into the light of Gd.


Commentary by Steve Sufian

Parashat Tzav

In the previous parsha, Vayikra, Gd called to Moses to tell Aaron and his sons, the priests, the nature of the offerings they will make. In this parshah, Tzav, Gd commands Moses to tell Aaron and his sons, their rights and their responsibilities regarding the offerings and the eternal fire into which the offerings are made.

The symbolism here is very sweet: in order for the fire to be eternal, to not go out, it needs to be fed each morning with fresh wood. It is not, in itself eternal and yet it serves as a symbol of Gd, who is Eternal.

Similarly, the fire symbolizes the fire of our own soul, which guides us to act lovingly so our actions are good actions, our actions draw us near to Gd and also near to all the expressions, Creation, of Gd: our family, friends, neighbors, strangers, trees, plants, rivers, stones – all the expressions of Gd.

And in order for this fire to be kept burning, for our soul to be kept interacting with the world, we need to make offerings, not only every morning as with wood for the eternal fire in the Tabernacle, but every moment – lest our soul withdraw from our personality, distance itself if we fail to draw near to our soul by offering our good actions to Gd.

Baruch HaShem