Tzav & Jeremiah: Smoke vs. Altruism

(Last week’s Torah portion was actually Vayikra, the first portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra. This week I am back on sync with the calendar of Torah readings.)

What gives God pleasure?

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) and its haftarah, the accompanying reading from the Prophets (Jeremiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23) give two different answers. In Leviticus, God is infuriated when any Israelites violates one of God’s many rules, even inadvertently; but smoke from a burning sacrifice improves God’s mood. In Jeremiah, God is bitter and destructive because the Israelites abandoned God and worshipped other gods; and smoke does nothing to improve God’s mood. 

Pleasure in smoke

The first five books of the bible are full of people making animal sacrifices to God. The first humans in the Torah to worship God with burned offerings are Cain and Abel.1 Noah loads some extra animals on the ark, and when he burns them after the flood has receded, God’s attitude toward humankind improves.2

Noah’s Sacrifice, by James Tissot, circa 1900

Throughout Genesis and Exodus, individual men continue to thank and worship God by building altars and burning animals. The first two portions in the book of Leviticus, Vayikra and Tzav, give God’s instructions for making animal and grain offerings as part of the new cult that relies on priests.

For any type of offering, Leviticus explains, the donor who brings the animal to the altar leans a hand on its head before slaughtering it,3 thus identifying the animal as his gift to God and making sure God gives him the credit. For example, in the Torah portion Tzav, a ram is burned during the ceremony in which Moses consecrates the first priests, Aaron and his four sons.

Then [Moses] brought close the ram of the olah, and Aaron and his sons leaned their hands on the head of the ram. And he slaughtered it, and Moses sprinkled the blood on the altar all around. (Leviticus 8:18-19)

olah (עֺלָה) = offering in which the animal is completely burned. (From the root verb alah, עָלָה = rise up.)

After the altar is splashed with blood, Moses butchers the animal, and all the pieces are roasted on the fire of the altar.

When an offering is made to atone for transgressing one of God’s laws, even unintentionally, a priest removes all the fatty parts of the animal and burns them up into smoke; then he and other male priests may eat the remaining meat. The smell of the smoke soothes God’s temper and inclines God toward forgiveness. (See my post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.) When an offering is made to thank God for well-being, the donor and his guests also get to eat some of the meat, but the fatty parts are still reserved to be burned up into smoke for God.

Humans get two benefits from an offering that is not an olah: they eat high-protein food, and God is pleased or appeased. But other offerings require that the entire animal is burned up into smoke for God. During the consecration of priests in Tzav,

… Moses turned the whole ram into smoke at the altar; it was an olah, for a soothing scent; it was a fire-offering for God, as God had commanded Moses. (Leviticus 8:21)

An olah must be offered not only on special occasions such as a consecration or a holiday, but also every day, so there is always something smoldering on the altar.

The smoke from the burning animal rises up to the sky, where God normally lives. (Hebrew uses the same word, shamayim, שָׁמַיִם, for both “sky” and “heavens”.) Then God enjoys the “soothing scent” of the smoke, and relaxes. The God-character in the Torah is hot-tempered, and needs a lot of soothing. Even part of the daily grain-offering is mixed with oil and frankincense and burned, so that its smoke will please God.4

Against burning animals

Yet the haftarah reading from the book of Jeremiah declares that the directions for animal offerings are useless.

Thus said God of Armies, God of Israel: “Add your olot onto your slaughter-sacrifice and eat the meat! Because I did not speak with your forefathers, nor command them at the time I brought them out of the land of Egypt concerning matters of olah and slaughter. Rather, with this word if commanded them, saying: Heed my voice, and I will be your god, and you—you will be my people. And you must walk the entire path that I command you, so that it will be good for you.” (Jeremiah 7:21-23)

olot (עֺלוֹת) = plural of olah; offerings in which the animal is completely burned up into smoke.

Some commentators have explained Jeremiah’s outburst as sarcasm. Others have written that Jeremiah meant the wicked were assuming they could get away with their transgressions by making the appropriate guilt-offerings.5

I think Jeremiah is challenging the whole idea that the way to keep God happy is to keep making sacrifices and providing smoke for God to smell. In the chapter before this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah quotes God as saying:

“Your olot are not acceptable, and your slaughter-sacrifices do not please me.” (Jeremiah 6:20)

Pleasure in altruism

Then what does give God pleasure in the book of Jeremiah?

Shortly before this week’s haftarah begins, God says:

“For if you really make your way and your acts good; if you really do justice between a man and his fellow, if you do not oppress an immigrant, orphan, or widow, and you do not shed the blood of the innocent in this place, and you do not go after other gods—to your own harm; then I will let you dwell in this place, in the land that I gave to your forefathers forever until forever.” (Jeremiah 7:5-7)

In other words, the only way to please God is to be fair, to help the needy, and to avoid other gods.

The end of this week’s haftarah is the following poem:

Thus said God:

            “May the wise not boast of their wisdom,

            And may the powerful not boast of their power.

            May the wealthy not boast of their wealth.

            Rather, in this may the boasting boast:

            Understanding and knowing me.

            Because I, God, do kindness,

            Justice, and altruism in the land.

            Because in these I take pleasure,”

Declared God. (Jeremiah 9:22)

Every year I approach the portions Vayikra and Tzav with dread; they are particularly unpleasant reading for someone like me who does not eat mammals and does not want to see or imagine their cut-up corpses. Nor do I like the idea of a God who normally has a hair-trigger temper, but calms right down under the influence of smoke from sacrifices.

As I write this I am sipping a cup of cocoa, because the taste of chocolate calms me down. But I disdain a concept of God that assigns the deity that much human frailty.

The God in Jeremiah is not as temperamental as the one in Leviticus. Yet this God is fixated on destroying Judah and Jerusalem in order to punish the Israelites for both serving other gods, and persisting in doing evil to other human beings. Only a thorough change in the people’s behavior will satisfy God. Only then will God let them return in peace to their ancestral land.

What would it take to please God—or to occupy our world in peace—today?

  1. Genesis 4:3-4.
  2. Genesis 8:20-21.
  3. The Hebrew in Vayikra and Tzav is veshachat (וְשָׁחַט) = and he will slaughter, with “he” referring to the one who leans a hand on the animal’s head.
  4. Leviticus 6:8.
  5. For example, Rabbi Bachya ben Asher wrote circa 1300 C.E.: “When the prophet spoke about G’d not commanding us to bring animal sacrifices he meant that the animal sacrifices were not meant to be in lieu of penitence and proper conduct on our part. This is what Samuel had already said many hundreds of years previously to King Saul (Samuel I 15,22) “heeding My commands is much preferable than to offer Me good meat-offerings.” (Translation of Rabbeinu Bachya on Leviticus 7:38 by

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