Vayikra & Tzav vs. Isaiah & Psalm 40: Smoke vs. Words & Deeds

March 14, 2019 at 4:41 pm | Posted in Isaiah 1, Psalms/Tehilim, Tzav, Vayikra | Leave a comment

The book of Leviticus/Vayikra gets right down to business.  The first Torah portion opens with God calling to Moses, then telling him more instructions for the Israelites—this time about conducting the rituals at the altar.

from Treasures of the Bible, Northrop, 1894

Speak to the Israelites, and you shall say to them:  Any human among you who offers an offering to God, from the livestock—from the herd or from the flock—you shall offer your offering.  If it is an olah he will offer from his herd…  (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:2)

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering; an offering that is completely burned into smoke.  (Plural: olot (עֺלוֹת).)

A person who offers an offering of minchah to God, fine flour will be his offering …  (Leviticus 2:1)

minchah (מִנחָה) = gift of allegiance or homage; a grain-offering.

And if he offers a zevach as a thankgiving-offering …  (Leviticus 3:1)

zevach (זֶבַח) = animal slaughter as an offering on the altar.  (Plural: zivechim (זִבְחִעם).)

The text continues through this week’s Torah portion (Vayikra) and next week’s (Tzav) with instructions for a total of six kinds of offerings.  (See my post Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2.)  The last four all involve slaughtering animals, burning parts of them so God can enjoy the smell of the smoke, and eating the remaining edible parts after they have been roasted on the altar.

The primary method of serving God throughout the Hebrew Bible is turning animals into smoke, “… a fire-offering of a soothing smell for God” (Leviticus 3:5).  In the first twelve books of the bible (Genesis through 2 Kings) this method goes unquestioned.

Where does this idea come from?  The Torah does not say, but I believe the ancient Israelites assumed God wanted animal sacrifices because the other gods in the Ancient Near East were worshiped that way.1

Only when foreign empires began swallowing up the kingdoms of Israel did prophets and psalmists begin to question this approach.  The first prophet in the book of Isaiah reports:

“Why your many zivechim for me?” God says.

“I am sated with olot of rams.

And suet from fattened animals

And blood of bulls and lambs and he-goats

I do not want!”  (Isaiah 1:11)

“… And when you spread your palms

I am averting my eyes from you.

Even though you multiply [your] prayers

I am not listening.

Your hands are full of blood!

Wash, become pure;

Remove your evil acts from in front of my eyes;

Cease doing evil!

Learn to do good!

Seek justice,

Make the oppressed happy,

Defend the orphan,

Argue the widow’s case!”  (Isaiah 1:15-17)

Here God does not totally reject animal sacrifices, but God does consider good deeds and justice a higher form of service.

Psalm 40 declares:

[God] gave my mouth a new song,

A song of praise for our God.

May the many see, and may they be awed

And may they trust in God.    (Psalm 40:4)

Zevach and minchah you do not want.

You dug open a pair of ears for me!

Olah and guilt-offering you do not request.  (Psalm 40:7)

That is when I said:

Hey, I will bring a scroll of the book written for me.

I want to do what you want, my God,

And your teaching is inside my guts.

I delivered the news of right behavior to a large assembly.

Hey! I will not eat my lips.  (Psalm 40:7-10)

The speaker in Psalm 40 maintains that God does not want smoke, only words of praise. Nothing can make this poet recant; he will not “eat his lips”.  (See my post Tetzavveh: Smoke and Pray.)


What does God want?  Most, but not all, of the Hebrew Bible assumes God wants offerings on the altar.  Today we assume God wants words of prayer and blessing, as well as deeds of kindness and justice.

But why should we give God what we think God wants?

Suppose you want to thank a person for saving your life.  You might speak to them, send them a card, send them flowers or a bigger gift.

Suppose you want to manipulate or appease a person who has power over you.  You might speak to them, send them a card, send them flowers or a bigger gift.

The same human impulses apply to thanking or manipulating a semi-anthropomorphic God.  In the bible, the Israelites slaughter their animals in order to give them to God, either in gratitude or in an attempt at appeasement.2

Today, do we pray and do good deeds to express gratitude?  Or to appease God?  Or to manipulate God into giving us what we want?

  1. For example, the odor of Utnapishtim’s burnt sacrifice gives the gods of Mesopotamia pleasure in Gilgamesh tablet 11, part 4. In the book of Numbers, Moabite women invited Israelites to worship Baal Pe-or with them through zivechey their god” (Numbers 25:2).  (Zivechey (זִבְחֵי) = slaughter offerings of.)  In the book of Ezekiel, God complains that Israelites are flocking to foreign altars and burning sacrifices to give idols soothing smells (Ezekiel 6:13, 16:19, and 20:28).
  2. Offerings of wholeness or thanksgiving (shelamim, שְׁלָמִים) are described in the portion Vayikra in Leviticus 3:1-16 and in the portion Tzav in Leviticus 7:11-21. Offerings to appease God after violating one of God’s rules (chataat, חַטָּאת, and asham, אָשָׁם) are described in Vayikra in Leviticus 4:1-5:22.

Metzora: Ear, Thumb, Toe

April 18, 2018 at 11:05 am | Posted in Metzora, Tzav | Leave a comment

Ew, icky, gross, disgusting!  These words express is our unfiltered, untrained reactions to such things as slimy substances, corpses, and some visible diseases.

Tamei! says the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

And the tzarua who has a mark, his clothes shall be torn and his hair shall be neglected and he shall wrap something over his lip, and he shall call out: Tamei!

tzarua (צָרוּעַ) = one stricken with the skin disease tzara-at (צָרָעַת). Also called a metzora (מְצֺרָע), from the same root.

tamei (טָמֵא) = ritually impure.

Anyone who is ritually impure, tamei, because of contact with genital discharges, dead bodies, or the skin disease tzara-at is forbidden to enter the courtyard around the sanctuary until the proper ritual purifies them.  Perhaps the writers of these passages1 imagined God was so anthropomorphic “he” would feel disgusted by these things, too.  Or perhaps the proper frame of mind for standing in front of God was to be free of any feelings of disgust—which would also explain why physically blemished priests could not serve at the altar.2

Metzora outside the city wall, by James Tissot

Tzara-at is not contagious,3 yet those afflicted with it are quarantined, forbidden even to live within their own community’s tent circle or town wall.4

This week’s Torah portion, Metzora (“someone with tzara-at”), prescribes how to make people who have healed from tzara-at ritually pure again, so they can rejoin the community for both worship and daily life.

First a priest must go outside the camp to inspect the metzora and confirm that their skin has really healed.  The writers of the Hebrew Bible assumed that any serious disease is a divine punishment for doing something wrong, and healing means that God had ended the punishment.  Many plagues are attributed to disobeying one of God’s commands.  Tzara-at, however, appears to be a divine punishment for demeaning other people through slander, denigration, or deception.5

If the skin disease is gone, the priest conducts a ritual with two wild birds.  (See my post Metzora & Acharey Mot: Doubles.)  Then, after washing and shaving their entire body, the metzora comes into the sanctuary courtyard with offerings to God.  The first offering is for their own purification and atonement.

The priest shall take one of the young rams and bring it near for an ashamThen the priest shall take some of the blood of the asham, and the priest shall put it on the rim of the right ear of the one being purified, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the thumb of his right foot.  (Leviticus 14:12, 14:14) 

asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering, to atone for an intentional misdeed.  (This is another indication that the Torah views bad behavior as the cause of tzara-at.)

In the whole Hebrew Bible, blood is daubed on the ear, thumb, and big toe for only two reasons: to purify an ex-metzora, or to ordain a priest.  Earlier in Leviticus we read:

Then [Moses] brought near the second ram, the ram of the ordination, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the ram.  And Moses slaughtered it, and he took some of its blood and put it on the rim of Aaron’s right ear, the thumb of his right hand, and the thumb of his right foot.  Then he brought near the sons of Aaron, and Moses put some of the blood on the rim of their right ears, on the thumb of their right hands, and on the thumb of their right feet.  (Leviticus 8:22-24)

Both a new priest and a newly healed metzora are daubed with ram’s blood from head to toe, on the right side, the active side.

Oil is involved in both rituals as well, though the order of application is different.  When Moses ordains the first priests, he sprinkles anointing oil (which contains aromatic spices) on the altar before the blood-daubing.6  A priest sprinkles some of the ex-metzora’s offering of plain olive oil on the altar after the blood daubing.7

In both cases, after sprinkling oil on the altar, the officiant pours oil on someone’s head.  Moses pours anointing oil on Aaron’s head.8  The procedure for an ex-metzora is more elaborate:

And some of the rest of the oil that is on his palm the priest shall put on the rim of the right ear of the one being purified and on the thumb of his right hand and on the thumb of his right foot, over the blood of the asham.  Then the remainder of the oil that is on the palm of the priest he shall put on the head of the one being purified.  Thus the priest shall make atonement for him before God.  (Leviticus 14:17-18) 

Why are the procedures for purification after a skin disease and ordination of a priest so similar?  One answer is that both the metzora and the priest take a step up in their ability to serve God.  The metzora becomes able to enter the space in front of the sanctuary where the altar is.  The priest becomes able to enter the inner sanctuary.

Community members who are temporarily barred from the sanctuary courtyard because of other ritual impurities do not go through the same blood-daubing and oil-pouring ritual—perhaps because they have done nothing wrong.  They might become ritually impure because of sex, or childbirth, or the death of a family member.  The passage of time and a less elaborate cleansing ritual are sufficient.

Perhaps someone who has recovered from tzara-at gets the full priestly treatment because the disease was thought to be the result of denigrating another person.  If one is accustomed to malicious gossip, or deception, or arrogant speech, it takes care and attention not to fall back into one’s old habits.  A powerful ritual can help motivate reformed persons to watch themselves continuously.

Priests in the Torah are also required to pay constant attention to their behavior.  Any slip on their part leads to improper worship by the whole community.  So they begin their tenure with a powerful ritual to remind them of their awesome responsibility.

Purity in any area requires careful attention.  Today, those with medical conditions requiring the complete elimination of certain foods, as well as Jews who are strict about keeping kosher, must read labels and ask embarrassing questions about meals served away from home.

And in our world of divisiveness and suffering, we all need to aim at purity in our own ethical behavior.  Like the metzora, we must guard ourselves against harmful speech.  Like the priest, we must be careful and thoughtful about what we teach, what we do, and the examples we set.

May the spirit of the divine help us all to pay attention.

  1. Modern scholars agree that all the instructions on protocol regarding the altar and sanctuary in Leviticus were written by the “P” source, i.e. one or more priests experienced in the rituals.
  2. See my post Emor: Flawed Worship.
  3. The detailed description of tzara-at in the Torah portion Metzora does not match any known contagious disease. The bible does not consider it contagious, either; while Naaman had tzara-at, he led an army, and the king of Aram often leaned on his arm for support (2 Kings 5:18).
  4. Those with tzara-at are excluded from the tent camp in Leviticus 13:46 and Numbers 12:14-16. They must stay outside the town wall in 2 Kings 7:3-10.
  5. Tzara-at is a punishment for harmful speech according to Numbers 12:-15; Talmud Bavli, Arachin 16a; Maimonides (Rambam) in “Mishnah” Nega’im 12:5; and Shlomoh ben Yitzchak (Rashi) in his commentary on Leviticus. The Torah implies that God strikes Naaman the Aramean with tzara-at because of his pride (2 Kings 5:9-14), which might have led to denigrating others.  And King Azariah gets lifelong tzara-at because of his failure to remove other gods’ shrines, which leads to Israelite apostasy (2 Kings 15:5).
  6. Leviticus 8:11.
  7. Leviticus 14:16 and 14:27.
  8. Exodus 29:7 and Leviticus 8:12.

Tzav: Oil and Blood

March 21, 2018 at 10:04 am | Posted in Tzav | 3 Comments

What does it mean to be a priest in the Hebrew Bible?  One clue is the ordination ritual.

Smikhah letter, 1877

My own ordination as a maggid, a Jewish preacher and storyteller, included telling a story.  Ordination as a rabbi through the ALEPH program includes giving a divrei Torah (“words of Torah”, corresponding to a sermon in the Christian tradition).  In both cases written documents are signed, and the final step is the laying on of hands (smikhah) transmitting authority from the teacher to the student.1

The first priests of the Israelites undergo an entirely different initiation experience in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”).  The primary job of biblical priests is to process various animal and grain offerings according to all the rules in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.  Priests also enforce the rules on ritual purity;2 diagnose the skin disease of tzara-at;3 recite a blessing formula over the community;4; tend the menorah (lampstand) and other holy items inside the sanctuary;5 and look impressive while on duty.6  No wonder the ordination of the first priests focuses on purification, blood, and clothing.

First, in front of all the Israelites, Moses bathes Aaron and his four sons in water.7  Water and the blood of animal offerings are purifying agents in the Torah.  Next Moses dresses Aaron in all the garments of the high priest, ending with the gold forehead ornament engraved “Holy to God”.8

Next Moses picks up the anointing oil.  In the Hebrew Bible, only priests and kings are anointed before they take up their duties.

Then Moses took the anointing oil, and he anointed the sanctuary and everything that was in it, vayekadeish them.  And he sprinkled some of it seven times on the altar, and all its tools, and the basin and its stand, lekadesham.  And he poured out some of the anointing oil on the head of Aaron, and he anointed him lekadeshu.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:10-12)

vayekadeish (וְַיקַדֵּשׁ) = and he made holy, and he sanctified.  (In the Hebrew Bible, kadosh (קָדוֹשׁ = holy) means set apart for God rather than for ordinary use.  See my post Kedoshim: Reciprocal Holiness.)

lekadesham (לְקַדְּשָׁם) = to made them holy.

lekadeshu (לְקַדְּשׁוּ) = to make him holy.

Moses uses the same oil to make Aaron and all the objects related to the sanctuary holy.9  While the temple stood in Jerusalem, priesthood was hereditary and new priests, when they came of age, were anointed to consecrate them for serving God.

After the anointing, Moses finally dresses Aaron’s four sons in their assistant priest garments.  (Some commentary assumes that they put on their own linen breeches after the bathing, so they did not spend the entire time nude.)

Then Moses slaughters three animal offerings: a bull as a chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering, a ram as an olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering, and a second ram as a milu-im (מִלֻּאִים) = ordination-offering.  (See my posts Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings without Slaughter, Part 1 and Part 2 on these three types of offerings.)

Smikhah for Aaron and sons

And he presented the bull of the reparation-offering, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the bull of the reparation-offering.  And Moshe slaughtered it. and he took the blood and put it on the horns of the altar all around with his finger, and he made reparation for the altar.  And he poured out the blood onto the foundation of the altar, and vayekadeish it for atonement.  (Leviticus 8:14-15)

The five men who are being ordained transfer some of their spirit or identity to the bull by laying their hands on its head.  (See last week’s post, Vayikra & Jeremiah: Kidneys.)  Then Moses cuts its throat and puts blood on the four corners of the altar, which are shaped like animal horns, as well as on its foundation.  According to Rashi, this blood not only makes the altar ritually pure, but also changes its status from ordinary to holy, so it can be used from then on to make reparations for people’s errors and atone for their crimes against God.10

Horned altar at Beersheva

Moses slaughters the first ram as an olah and burns up the whole animal into smoke; the God-character in the sky appreciates the fragrance.11  Then he slaughters the second ram as a milu-im, an ordination offering.  Just as he daubed bull’s blood on the horns of the altar, Moses daubs ram’s blood on the right ears, right thumbs, and right big toes of the five men being ordained, before he splashes the rest on the altar.12

Then Moses took some of the anointing oil and some of the blood that was on the altar, and he sprinkled on Aaron, on his clothes, on his sons, and on the clothes of his sons with him.  Vayekadeish Aaron and his clothes and his sons and the clothes of his sons with him.  (Leviticus 8:30)

The anointing oil is for consecration; the blood is for ritual purification.  Having completed both, Moses tells Aaron and his sons to spend seven days and nights at the entrance of the sanctuary.  On the eighth day, the new priests will officially inaugurate the altar, and their own service, with seven animal offerings and a grain offering.  (See my post Tzav: Filling Up a Priest.)

Why does Moses apply oil and blood not only to the five men he is ordaining, but also to their clothing and the altar?

Sacrificing an animal is the primary means of worshiping God in the most of the Hebrew Bible.  Once the priests are ordained, the Israelites bring their animals to the altar to be slaughtered.  The priests collect and splash the blood, butcher the animals, lift up animal parts, burn, roast, and remove waste.  Both the priests and the altar are intermediaries between the people and God.

When I reread this week’s Torah portion I felt sorry for the priests in the bible.  Their honor is merely hereditary, and their contribution to the welfare of the Israelites consists in following the rules.  They do not volunteer creative work, like Betzaleil and the artisans who craft all the items for the tent-sanctuary.  They do not make plans and decisions, like the kings and their generals and aides.  They do not have visions and hear God’s voice, like the prophets.

The priests also do not get to tell stories, like a maggid.  They do not get to explain words of Torah, like a rabbi.  They learn the Torah only in order to follow and teach the rules about offerings, impurity, diseases, and temple protocol.  No wonder the ordination of the first priests includes multiple applications of blood from animal offerings in order to effect ritual purity.

Nevertheless, the Israelites depend on the labor of the priests so they can worship God in the only way they know.  Today, may we all honor those who follow the rules and keep things running just as much as we honor inspired artists, leaders, and prophets.

  1. For more on smikhah see last week’s post, Vayikra& Jeremiah: Kidneys.
  2. The many examples include Leviticus 12 and 15, and Numbers 5 and 6:9-20.
  3. Leviticus 13:1-14:57.
  4. Numbers 6:22-27.
  5. Exodus 27:20-21, Numbers 8:1-3.
  6. Priests are not allowed to serve at the altar or inside the sanctuary unless they have unblemished bodies (Leviticus 21:16-23 and 21:18-20). They must also be wearing their garments made of white linen and expensive dyes, and when the high priest officiates he wears a gold tabard with gems and a gold plate on his forehead (Exodus 28).  The high priest may not dishevel his hair or rip his garments—the usual signs of mourning—even when his closest family members die (Leviticus 21:10-12).
  7. Leviticus 8:6.
  8. Leviticus 8:7-9. For more information, see my post Tetzavveh: Holy Flower.
  9. But God’s instructions to Moses in Exodus 29:7 only mention pouring oil on Aaron’s head, not on the sanctuary or the altar.
  10. Rashi (11th-century Rabbi Shlomoh Yitzchaki) explained that Moses chata, made reparation, not because anyone had missed the mark, but simply to purify the altar so as to convert it from an ordinary state to a holy state.
  11. Leviticus 8:18-21.
  12. Leviticus 8:22-24.

Tzav: Filling Up a Priest

April 5, 2017 at 5:44 pm | Posted in Tzav | 2 Comments
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The Israelites complete the tent that will serve as a portable temple at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot. Moses consecrates the altar and the priests who will perform all the required rituals in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, the second portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.

High Priest’s garments

Moses assembles the whole community outside the entrance of the new Tent of Meeting. In front of everyone he washes his brother Aaron and Aaron’s four sons, then dresses them in the white, gold, red, purple, and blue ritual garments described in the book of Exodus/Shemot.1

The ceremony continues with the ritual slaughter of a bull and three rams, offerings of animal parts and three kinds of flat cakes, and the application of anointing oil and blood from the slaughtered animals in various locations and combinations. (See my post Tzav: Oil and Blood.) After the gorgeous new ceremonial garments are spotted all over with oil and blood they are holy—dedicated to God.  So are Aaron and his sons, but they are not yet priests.

Moses leaves them with a supply of boiled meat (from the second ram) and leftover grain products (from the grain offering), and gives them strict instructions:

You must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day of melot the days of your milu-im; because in seven days yemallei your yad. (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:33)

melot (מְלֺאת) = filling up, being full, fulfilling, completing.  (A form of the verb mala, מָלַא = filled, was full.)

milu-im (מִילֻּאִים) = ordination; setting for a jewel to fill.  (From the root mala.)

yemallei (יְמַלֵּא) = it will fill up.  (Another form of the verb mala.)

yad (יַד) = hand; power, ability.

mala yad (מָלַא יַד) = Literally: filled the hand.  Idiomatically: ordained.2

Tent of Meeting and its courtyard
(entrances in red)

According to God’s instructions to Moses in the book of Exodus, one part of the ritual will be repeated each day during this seven-day period: the slaughter of a bull and consecration of the altar with its blood.3 But Aaron and his sons will simply sit in the tent entrance in their spattered garments, gradually eating their portions of the meat and grain offerings that they had shared with God.

God commanded to do what was done today, to atone for you. And you must sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, and you must watch over the watch of God, so you will not die; for so I was commanded.  (Leviticus 8:34-35)

The Torah does not say whether the long ritual served as a general atonement and spiritual purification, or whether it atones for Aaron’s sin of making the golden calf back in the book of Exodus.4

Nor does it say what Aaron and his sons must watch over or guard for seven days. Many commentators have written that they spend the seven days meditating on the rules of holiness and ritual purity for serving God.5

Another viewpoint is that they are mourning, because they have a premonition that at least one of them will die on the eighth day, when they first serve God as official priests.6 But when Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, in next week’s Torah portion, it comes as a shock to everyone.

The Torah also quotes Moses as telling Aaron and his sons that they must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days because “it will fill up (yemallei) your ability (yad)”.  Maybe it takes seven days in the entrance to God’s dwelling-place to fill up with sufficient holy awe to be able to conduct the business of holiness.

What strikes me is that Aaron and his sons are neither born nor trained to be priests.  They get their new positions without any previous job experience.

Chur and Aaron support Moses, by J.E. Millais, 1871

Up to this point, Aaron has not been the sort of man who wears a gold medallion on his forehead saying “Holy to God”.   It’s clear in the book of Exodus that God only calls Aaron in because Moses makes so many objections to the job God gives him at the burning bush.7  To his credit, Aaron greets his long-lost brother without jealousy, and willingly serves as Moses’ sidekick.  When the Israelites are attacked by Amalek on the way to Mount Sinai, Aaron literally supports Moses’ arm and helps him save the day.8  But when Moses climbs Mount Sinai and does not return for 40 days, and the people panic and ask for idols, Aaron makes the golden calf.

Now Aaron is promoted from Moses’ unreliable assistant to High Priest.  Aaron will officiate over the ritual offerings in the sanctuary.  Aaron will light the menorah.  Aaron will be in charge of God’s dwelling place.

Aaron’s four sons are also getting major promotions.  They have not done anything of distinction, though they would be treated with the respect simply because they are Aaron’s sons.9  Now they are being ordained as priests.  They will be the only people besides Moses and Aaron and Moses who are allowed to enter the Tent of Meeting, the only people allowed to handle the holiest objects inside it.  Only they will turn the offerings of their people into smoke that ascends to God.

For seven days Aaron and his sons sit inside the sanctuary, in the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Perhaps they face out, gazing at the bronze altar and the wash-basin in the sunlit courtyard. Perhaps they face in, gazing at the golden menorah, incense altar, and bread table under the tent roof, not to mention the curtain screening off the ark itself.  For seven days they sit there, without distractions, realizing they will spend the rest of their lives dedicated to holy service.

I doubt they are doing anticipatory mourning for the coming deaths of Nadav and Avihu. But they may be mourning for their old way of life, which has ended forever.  At the end of seven days, they will be the servants of God’s dwelling-place, who must act as God’s representatives every waking minute.

Their new lives as priests are imposed on them.  They do not apply for the job. They do not even hear God call them, the way prophets in the Hebrew Bible are called into service. Moses simply tells them what God told him do. It might seem like a great honor to them, or it might seem as arbitrary as an accident.

At least they are granted seven days to sit at the entrance of their new lives, experiencing the grief, fear, awe, and whatever else comes along, letting the transformation sink in.

We don’t have a Moses to set aside seven days for us when we face a sudden major change in life.  But we have the example in this week’s Torah portion.  May everyone who can take time on the threshold between an old life and a new one receive the inspiration to sit and reflect.  And whenever our lives change, may God fill up our ability to meet the new challenge.

(An earlier version of this essay was posted in March 2010.)

1  Exodus 28:1-43, 39:1-31. See my post Tetzavveh: The Clothes Make the Man.

2  The source of this idiom is not known, but it may be related to the elevation offering, the tenufah (תְּנוּפָה), in which priests lay the meat or grain cakes to be offered on their palms and either hold them out, raise them, or wave them toward God before burning them. A tenufah was part of the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 8:26-28).

3  Exodus 29:35-38.

4  Exodus 32:1-8, 21-25. See my post Ki Tissa: Out Came this Calf!

5  e.g. 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman (a.k.a. Ramban, Nachmanides), paraphrased in Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 71; 19th-century rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 1, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 277.

6  Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of commentary from the 5th through 8th centuries C.E., paraphrased in Munk, p. 72.  Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, consumed by a fire from God (Leviticus 10:1-2); and Moses forbids Aaron and his two surviving sons to engage in mourning for them (Leviticus 10:6-7). The seven days sitting at the tent entrance are compared to the initial seven-day mourning period of shivah, but “sitting shivah” is a later Jewish custom.

7  Exodus 4:10-17.

8  Exodus 17:8-13.  See my post Beshallach: Hands Up.

9  Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, are treated as if they are elders when they walk partway up Mount Sinai with the 70 regular elders, Moses, and Aaron to behold a vision of God’s feet (Exodus 24:1, 9-11).

Haftarot for Vayikra & Tzav—Isaiah & Jeremiah: Useless Gods

March 23, 2016 at 6:03 pm | Posted in Isaiah 2, Jeremiah, Tzav, Vayikra | Leave a comment
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Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). Last week the Torah portion was Vayikra (Leviticus 1.1-5:26) and the haftarah was Isaiah 43:21-44:23. This week the Torah portion is Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23.

The first two Torah portions in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra consist entirely of instructions for making offerings on the altar: what each type of offering is for, what kind of animal or grain should be brought, and how the priests should process them. In Leviticus, this is the primary way to worship God, so the instruction manual is important.

The two accompanying haftarah readings both declare that offerings on God’s altar are meaningless when people are also making and worshiping idols.

The children of Judah have done what is bad in My eyes, declares God. They have set their abominable idols in the House with My name on it, defiling it. And they have built shrines of the Tofet in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, for burning their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command and which did not arise in my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-31)

Tofet in "Bible Pictures", 1897

Tofet in “Bible Pictures”, 1897

Jeremiah decries the placement of statues of other gods right in God’s temple (“house”) in Jerusalem, as well as the practice of Tofet-worship in the valley below.  The haftarah from Isaiah points out that a craftsman might burn part of a log to burn for heat and cooking, and carve another part of the log into a statue to which he bows down and prays.

Yotzeir of an idol—

All of them are emptiness;

And what they crave

Cannot be useful.  (Isaiah 44:9)

yotzeir (יֹצֵר) = one who shapes, forms, fashions.

Other gods and the statues that represent them are empty, useless. God is the yotzeir of real humans; but a human is a yotzeir of false gods.

Jeremiah agrees that worshiping other gods is useless. In a prophecy that follows this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah says:

And the towns of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem will go to the gods for whom they sent up offerings in smoke, and call for help. But they [these gods] will certainly not rescue them at the time of their adversity. (Jeremiah 11:12)

The haftarah in Isaiah goes a step further, and declares other gods simply do not exist.

Thus said God, king of Israel

And its redeemer, God of Armies:

I am first and I am last

And except for Me there are no gods. (Isaiah 44:6)

The haftarot in Jeremiah and Isaiah agree that God punished the people of Judah for making and worshipping other so-called gods by sending in the Babylonian army to conquer the land and destroy Jerusalem and its temple. (See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)

Does that leave any hope for the future? Jeremiah, who witnessed the siege of Jerusalem in 589-587 B.C.E., predicts only more disaster.

Vulture on Assyrian relief carving in Kalhu

Vulture on Assyrian relief carving in Kalhu

And the carcasses of these people will be food for the birds of the sky and for beasts of the earth, and there will be no tomorrow. (Jeremiah 7:33)

And death will be preferable over life for all the remainder of those remaining from this wicked family, in all the places where I will push them… (Jeremiah 8:3)

But chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah were written at least 50 years later, after the Babylonian empire had been replaced by the Persians. Although the Jews did not get an independent kingdom again, the new Persian emperors granted them religious freedom and let those who wished go back to Jerusalem and build a second temple for their god.

The haftarah from Isaiah interprets this Persian policy as God’s intervention. After criticizing the Israelites for their idolatry, the haftarah says:

I have wiped away like a mist your rebellion

And like a cloud your transgressions.

Return to Me, for I have reclaimed You. (Isaiah 44:22)

How can they return? What should they do that is more important than making offerings at a rebuilt altar?

This week’s haftarah from Jeremiah says they should follow God’s directions for the right way to behave in the world.

Heed My voice, and I will be your god and you will be My people; but you must walk on the entire path that I command you, so that it will go well for you. (Jeremiah 7:23)

Last week’s haftarah from Isaiah says they should praise God to the rest of the world.

This people yatzarti for Myself:

My praise they should report! (Isaiah 43:21)

yatzarti (יָזַרְתִּי) = I formed, I shaped, I fashioned. (From the same verb as yotzeir above.)

Instead of forming statues of empty, useless gods, the people should report what the real God is.

But the Israelites of Judah turned deaf (according to Jeremiah) and mute (according to Isaiah) where God was concerned.


We still make idols, 2,600 years later, and we still worship “gods” that are ultimately useless. Some people pursue power as if it were the source of life—until their careers or families crash and they discover they live in a spiritual exile. Others dedicate themselves to accumulating or spending money—until a disaster reveals how they devoted so much time and energy to something so transient. We do not need an anthropomorphic god to send an army against us; serving the false gods we create carries its own intrinsic punishment, preventing us from leading full and meaningful lives.

A Jeremiah can point out that the wrong path leads to a bitter death. Sometimes this is the slap in the face we need to wake up.

But an Isaiah can give us hope for a second chance, however late in life. If we return to God—if we return of a life of appreciating reality (one form of praising God), appreciating one another, remembering we are only human, and rejoicing when we come home to our better selves—then the divine spirit will wipe away our former false worship like a mist, like a cloud. We can change, and true meaning can return to our lives.

Tzav & Pesach:  Being Unleavened, Part 1

March 25, 2015 at 10:11 am | Posted in Passover/Pesach, Tzav | 1 Comment
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by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah

If you mix flour and water, spread it flat, and slap it in the oven at once, what comes out is a matzah (plural: matzot):  “unleavened bread” that is really a large, bland cracker.

one kind of leavened bread

one kind of leavened bread

If you mix flour and water and let the mixture sit indoors for six to nine days, adding more flour and water each day, you get frothy sourdough starter, thanks to the activity of wild yeast—invisible microorganisms that cover everything, even flour. Add more flour to the starter, spend a day kneading it, shaping it, and letting it rise twice, and put the balls of dough in the oven.  What comes out is chameitz: loaves of leavened bread.  To get from flour and water to loaves of sourdough bread takes at least seven days.

The difference between matzot and chameitz is critical in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”), and even more critical in the Torah readings for the following two weeks, during the holiday of Passover/Pesach.

The Torah first mentions matzot in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, when Abraham’s nephew Lot meets two strangers in the town square of Sodom and invites them home.

He urged them very much, so they turned aside to him and came into his house.  And he prepared food and drink, and he baked matzot, and they ate.  (Genesis/Berieshit19:3)



matzot (מַצּוֹת) =  (plural) unleavened “bread”.

Lot’s wife is not involved in this act of hospitality.  Lot himself, who may not even know whether she has dough rising somewhere, simply mixes flour and water and spreads it on the hot inner surface of the oven, so that at least his guests will have crackers to eat with their meal.

The first mention of chameitz in the Torah is in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when God tells Moses what the Israelites should eat during the night of the final plague in Egypt, in preparation for the exodus the next morning. They must eat their meat roasted (the fastest way to cook it) and their bread as matzot (the fastest way to bake it).  And every year after that, they must remember the event with matzot:

Seven days you shall eat matzot; but on the first day you shall eliminate se-or from your houses, because anyone who eats chameitz, that soul shall be cut off from Israel—from the first day to the seventh day.  (Exodus/Shemot 12:15)

se-or (שְׂאֹר) = leavening agent, sourdough starter.

chameitz (חָמֵץ) = leavened bread, leavened food.

The Torah forbids the people of Israel to eat or own leavened bread during Passover. It also says that leavened bread must never be burned on the altar for God. But this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, gives directions for two kinds of offerings that include matzot burned on the altar: the grain offering and the thanksgiving offering.

And this is the teaching of the minchah: Sons of Aaron, bring it close before God, to the front of the altar. Then (one) shall elevate his handful: some of the fine flour of the minchah and some of its oil and all of its frankincense. Then he shall make it go up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma, a memorial portion for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 6:8)

minchah (מִנְחָה) = grain offering; tribute or gift to express respect and allegiance.

The loose flour sprinkled with oil and frankincense can be burned on the altar because it is dry, and therefore unleavened.

A similar rule applies to the thanksgiving offering, which is made by someone who has emerged safely from a dangerous or oppressive situation. This type of offering includes both meat and grain products, and is divided into three portions: one to burn up on the altar for God, one for the officiating priest to eat, and one for the donor and his guests to eat.

And this is the teaching of the slaughtered-animal of the wholeness-offering that is brought close to God: If as a todah he brings it close, then he shall bring close along with the slaughtered-animal of todah [the following]: round bread of matzot mixed with oil, and thin matzot sprinkled with oil, and fine flour loaves soaked through with oil, along with loaves of chameitz bread.  He shall bring close his offering: along with the slaughtered-animal, his whole todah. (Leviticus 7:11-13)

todah (תּוֹדָה) = thanks; thanksgiving offering (one category of shelamim = wholeness-offering).

In other words, the donor brings animals for slaughter, three kinds of matzot, and loaves of leavened bread.  Portions of the animals and the matzot are burned on the altar.  The officiating priest gets one of each kind of item (including a loaf of chameitz). The rest of the food, including the chameitz, is eaten by the donor and his guests.

Once again, matzot are considered more “holy” than chameitz.


In the first century C.E., Philo of Alexandria wrote that leaven is forbidden on the altar because it makes dough rise, and nobody should be inflated and puffed up by arrogance or insolence in front of God.

In the 19th century C.E., Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggested that chameitz stands for independence, and matzot for dependence. In a thanksgiving offering, Hirsch wrote, the chameitz represents the donor’s well-being and independence in the world.  The matzot acknowledges that he regained his worldly independence only through God, upon whom he is always dependent.

As a modern Jew, I am happy to offer prayers and blessings as my tribute (minchah) and my thanks (todah) to the divine. But when I am addressing God, I do not want to waste my time begging a parent-figure to give me what my inflated ego wants.  Instead, I want to acknowledge that I am not in charge—with an expression of humility, like tribute to a king, like matzot in a minchah offering.

I also want to give thanks for the amazing and wonderful universe I live in, knowing that I and the rest of the universe exist only because of forces I cannot imagine or control.  I want to acknowledge that I am not in charge—with an expression of dependence and appreciation, like giving thanks, like the matzot in a todah offering.

And while I’m at it, I want to express my gratitude for life by sharing my food with others, like the donor of a todah.  One of the things I want to share is some chameitz, some lovely leavened bread that stands for my joy over the small sphere of independence and power I have been given.


(Next week, check my blog for Tzav & Pesach: Unleavened, Part 2, which will discuss how ideas about leavened versus unleavened bread apply to the holiday of Passover.)

Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 2

March 9, 2014 at 12:34 pm | Posted in Tzav, Vayikra | 7 Comments

fireMaking a fire-offering in front of the Israelite sanctuary was nothing like lighting a candle at a pretty home altar. For every type of fire-offering except the grain-based minchah, according to the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, the donor must bring an animal, lay hands on its head, then watch the priests slaughter and butcher it, sprinkle the blood, and burn all or part of it on the communal altar to generate smoke for God’s pleasure.

Killing and burning animals may have been spiritually moving to the ancient Israelites, but today we can apply their categories of offerings to a more ethical set of procedures. Last week I suggested new meanings for fire-offerings in general, as well as for the first kind of fire-offering in Leviticus, the olah or rising-offering. (See last week’s post, Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1.)

In the order of their appearance in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, the other five types of fire-offerings are:

2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering; a gift to a king as a sign of homage or respect. (Minchah offerings are made out of grain.)

A person who offers a minchah for God, he shall offer fine flour, and he shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it …and the priest shall make a memorial portion go up in smoke on the altar, a fire-offering of soothing fragrance for God. (Leviticus 2:1-2)

When I burn part of my toast, it only sets off the smoke alarm. But before I eat bread, or any other food, I say a blessing to give thanks for it. The blessing is my gift of allegiance to the source of all life.

3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering. (From the same root as shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = complete, safe and sound, at peace.)

If he offers it as thanks … then he shall offer from each one, out of the whole offering, a gift to God; it shall belong to the priest who sprinkles the blood of the shelamim. And if the slaughtered animal of his offering is for a pledge or a donation … (Leviticus 7:12-16)

The animals and grain products in the shelamim were divided into three portions: one to be turned into smoke for God, one for the priest to eat, and one for the donor and his guests to eat in God’s presence.

When we give thanks today, we often thank the people who helped us (even though they did not sprinkle blood). We add a tangible gift or a donation for more generous thanks. And every time we make a donation, we add to the world’s supply of generosity—which brings more wholeness and holiness into the world.

4) chattat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering. (From the root chata (חָטָא) = miss the mark, commit an offense against God; make amends for doing wrong.)

If one person from among the people of the land should chata unintentionally, by doing one of the commandments of God that should not be done, and he incurs guilt—if the offense that he committed becomes known to him, then he shall bring his offering … and the priest shall make reconciliation for him and he shall be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:27-31)

What can we do today when we realize, after the fact, that we did something wrong? When I inadvertently violate a practice I have set for myself (for example, when I bite into what I thought was a vegetarian omelet and discover bacon in my mouth), I rectify the error to the extent that I can, and say a short prayer for discernment. For me, that is sufficient reconciliation with the divine inside me.

But when I realize I did something that hurt another person, I have to do something harder in order to reconcile both my conscience and the person I wronged.  I have to find a calm time to talk with the person, then say what I think I did wrong and apologize. Next I give the other person a chance to say how the offense looked to them. If I need to explain anything, I try to do it humbly, without defending my ego. Then I ask what I can do to make up for what I did. If the other person says “nothing”, but still seems hurt, I make a suggestion. When we have agreed on reparations, I perform them. Only then can I be forgiven, both by the other person and by myself.

5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering. (From the root asham (אָשַׁם) = incur guilt.)

If a person offends and betrays God’s trust and lies to his fellow about a pledge, or a loan, or a theft, or fraud; or he finds a lost item and lies about it, and he swears falsely … he shall return the stolen item that he stole or the fraud that he committed or the pledge that was left with him or the lost item he found … and he shall pay back the principal and add a fifth … And he shall bring his asham to God … And the priest shall make reconciliation for him before God, and he shall be forgiven for anything that he does to become guilty. (Leviticus 5:21-26)

Today we have many reasons to pass a guilty verdict on ourselves, including the reasons listed above. The Torah says that when we become guilty, in order to be forgiven we must make reparations to the person we have wronged, and also bring an asham, a guilt-offering, to God.

I think we need an updated version of the asham in order to forgive ourselves. When you have made reparations, and you still feel guilty, what ritual can you perform to clear yourself? For some people, the answer is to give a large donation to charity, in money or labor. For others, the answer might be to conduct a ritual that includes washing with water and saying prayers borrowed from the Yom Kippur repentance liturgy.

6) milu-im (מִלֻּאִים) = ordination-offering. (From the root mala (מָלַא) = fill, fulfill.  Filling someone’s hands meant ordaining someone as a priest.)

Then [Moses] offered the second ram, the ram of milu-im, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the ram. (Leviticus 8:22)

(For more details about the ordination of the first priests, see my posts Tzav: Oil and Blood and  Tzav: Seven Days of Filling Up.)

The milu-im appears to apply only to people ordained as clergy. But if our goal is to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6), then we need to give ordination-offerings whenever our hands are filled up—whenever we receive authority to act in the public sphere.

What can we give today in return for this authority? Humble service, regular prayers that we might be worthy, and the grace to step down again at the right time.

When the ancient Israelites wanted to give God fire-offerings, offerings of the heart, they could come to the altar and follow the established rituals. They knew what to do, and probably the death, blood, and smoke made the rituals more impressive for them.

Today we have to think harder about our practices. Yet we can still give six kinds of offerings to the divine, with the fire of our hearts. We can rise higher (olah), give allegiance (minchah), cultivate wholeness through thanks and generosity (shelamim), repair mistakes (chataat), undo guilt (asham), and turn our positions of authority into holy ordinations (milu-im).

Let’s keep on giving our own offerings!  And may the whole world someday become a holy nation.

Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1

March 2, 2014 at 12:09 pm | Posted in Tzav, Vayikra | 7 Comments
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Every year, when I start to read the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, my teeth clench. The first two Torah portions (Vayikra—“And It Called”, and Tzav—“Command”) consist of rules about offerings at the altar. And most of these offerings involve bringing forward a living animal, laying a hand on its head, and then slitting its throat, sprinkling blood, butchering it, and waving around or burning various pieces.

This is difficult reading for someone who stopped eating mammals and birds 18 years ago because they are too much like human beings.

The Torah teaches that we should not offer human beings at the altar, only animals and grain. But the instructions for offering a mammal always include laying hands on the animal’s head before it is slaughtered. This act transfers the donor’s identity to the animal, so killing and offering it is like sacrificing oneself for God.

For the ancient Israelites, domesticated mammals and birds had economic value. That made them suitable gifts for God. But what use would God have for a dead animal? In the book of Leviticus, the fatty parts of the animals are burned up into smoke, which ascends to the heavens, and the scent pleases God. When the priests or the donors eat other portions of the animal, they are partaking in the holiness of the sacrifice.

I can understand the desire to present God with a gift—out of sheer gratitude for our lives in the world, or out of a desire to return to harmony with the divine after we have strayed. I am also grateful that Jews have moved beyond killing animals at an altar.  But what we can give to God instead?

The portions Vayikra and Tzav lay out the procedures for six kinds of gifts to God. For all six, at least part of the gift is a fire-offering, burned on the altar. The first type of fire-offering the Torah discusses is the rising-offering.

…and the priest shall bring all of it and make it go up in smoke on the altar; it is an olah, an isheh of restful fragrance for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:13)

olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering. (From the root alah (עלה) = go up.) In an olah the entire slaughtered animal is burned up.

isheh (אִשֵּׁה) = fire-offering. (From the word eish (אֵשׁ) = fire.)

For the ancient Israelites, fire was not just the way to cook meat and make smoke. God manifested as something that looked like fire. And Biblical Hebrew, like English, used words like “burning” and “inflamed” to indicate consuming emotions such as anger.

Today, we might make an isheh, a fire-offering, by praying, chanting, or meditating with a specific intention about passion. If our passions about spiritual matters are easily inflamed, we might imagine offering our emotionality on the altar to burn itself out. We might visualize the smoke rising and dissipating into a clear, calm sky. Then we can be at rest with the divine.

If passion seems to be lacking in our search for God, we might imagine feeding the fire on the altar through our words or breath, so that the sparks of our buried feelings can become flames and rise like smoke.

The first type of offering in Leviticus, the olah, was the only one which stayed on the altar fire all night, until it was completely burned up into smoke.

Today, if we want our souls to keep rising up toward the divine, day and night, we have to keep tending the fire of our desire to make the most of our lives. The last thing we need is a wet blanket.

I have often smothered my own fire with a wet blanket of repetitive worrying. I am training myself to notice when the dripping edge of my blanket flops down again, so I can flip it away from the embers. For me, a good intervention is to sing a prayer or chant. It’s even better if I walk around the block while I am singing. After my mood has risen higher, I can have a better conversation with myself.

Next week I will look at the other five types of fire-offerings described in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, and how we might address the impulse behind each one today—without slaughtering animals.

Tzav: Keep the Altar Fire Burning

March 19, 2013 at 12:33 pm | Posted in Tzav | Leave a comment

The last Jewish temple was razed in the year 70 C.E., almost two thousand years ago, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. So what use do we have, today, for an instruction manual for priests officiating at the altar?

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”) tells priests what to do with the grain offering and four types of animal offerings (or sacrifices) brought to the altar at the front of the sanctuary.  These instructions ares certainly of historic interest. But do they matter to our own psycho-spiritual lives?

For the past two thousand years, Torah commentary has answered yes—by finding deeper meanings embedded in the practical instructions for the priests. One example is the Torah’s insistence that the fire on the altar must burn through the night and never go out.

Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the Teaching of the olah: It is the olah that [stays] on the hearth, on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire in the altar must be kept burning. (Leviticus/Vayikra 6:2)

olah = ascending, going up; that which ascends; an animal offering completely burned on the altar and thus turned entirely into smoke that ascends to God

And  you shall keep the fire on the altar burning, you shall not let it go out; and the priest shall kindle wood on it each morning, and he shall arrange the olah on it and cause the fat of the shelamim to ascend on it.  A continual fire must be kept burning on the altar; you may not let it go out. (Leviticus 6:5-6)

shelamim = offerings of peace and wholeness; animals offered to express thanks or to fulfill a vow, and divided into portions to be burned into smoke for God, portions for priests to eat, and portions for the donors and their guests to eat

The olah was offered twice a day, morning and evening. Other offerings were burned on the altar during the day, but at night the sanctuary was closed to everyone but the priests, and no new offerings were added to the fire. For the other kinds of animal offerings, including shelamim, the priests cut up the animal and reserved some pieces for eating, but burned the choice fatty parts on the altar. The fatty pieces burned up quickly, but the olah was the whole skinned animal, so it burned slowly.

One interpretation of the commandment to keep the altar fire going all night is simply that the burning of the olah must be completed, no matter how long it takes. And who would want to deprive God of even a whiff of the smoke?  (See my blog post Pinchas: Aromatherapy.)

But the ancient Israelites must have appreciated the symbolic value of a fire that must never go out as much as we do today. In next week’s Torah portion, Shemini, Aaron and his sons inaugurate the sanctuary’s altar with various offerings, lighting the wood themselves. But then a fire comes straight out from God and consumes every animal and animal part smoldering on the altar in one glorious rush. From then on, the fire that burns on the altar has a direct line of transmission—or ignition—from that divine fire. As Rabbi Elie Munk pointed out in the early 20th century, “Fire is an allusion to the Divine Word, the Torah.”  The word of the Torah must never be extinguished.

The fire on the altar is both divine and man-made, rekindled daily by the priests. Thus it also represents our passionate desire for God, which we must never extinguish.

Rabbis in the Talmud tractate Yoma deduce that all the fire used for holy purposes in the sanctuary is taken from the continual fire on the altar, including the fire used to kindle the incense altar, to burn coals in the censer on Yom Kippur, and to light the seven lamps of the golden menorah. Naturally a fire started by God would be the most holy fire to use. But Rabbi Munk compares the fire on the outer altar, used for animal offerings (i.e. sacrifices) to “the altar of duty” on which we should sacrifice our egotism. Only if we tend the fire of that altar will we be able to kindle the fire of passion for God that brings us exaltation.

Other commentary points out that although the fire on the altar must never go out altogether, it burns low during the night, and in the morning a priest kindles fresh wood from it. The late 19th-century Hassidic rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger wrote that the rekindling in the morning means that every day a new light comes to those who serve God.  Our spirits burn low at night, that is, when our soul are distracted by darkness and evil. But when we remove the ashes from the previous day’s sacrifices, we are removing the waste in our lives, and that uplifts us so that we receive new light from God.

About 100 years later, in 1998, Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank zt”l wrote the following double translation of Leviticus 6:6. (The first sentence is a literal translation; the second interprets it at a psycho-spiritual level.)

This is the law of the elevation offering, the elevation offering on the flames on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire of the altar shall be kept aflame on it.

This is the teaching which enables you to transcend. Transcend the ‘small’ by moving toward whatever enflames the passion in your heart even during times of illusion and conventional life-issues, leading towards the time of enlightenment. Let the parts of the Torah which seem brightly lit to your heart blaze and shine and fire up those parts of your soul that are ignitable.

Both Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger and Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank of Seattle compared the nights in this Torah verse to the times when we are distracted and deluded. I believe these times of darkness  are frequent for everyone; it is so easy to get caught up in the obsessions of our society, so hard to keep out minds on a higher purpose in life. But if we stick to a practice of offering ourselves to the divine at regular intervals—perhaps every morning and evening, like the olah—then we keep the fire from going out altogether. Another way to keep the fire from going out during the dark times, according to Wolfe-Blank, is to keep paying attention to the parts of the Torah that light up our hearts.

Then after every dark night comes a morning, and by the grace of God we see beauty and light again. We recall our own souls, and the fire is rekindled—the fire of desire and enlightenment and glory, the fire that is both a gift from God, and our gift to God.

Tzav: Who Gets the Skin?

March 29, 2012 at 5:38 pm | Posted in Tzav, Yom Kippur | Leave a comment

When I read all the gory details of the animal sacrifices in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, I have to work hard to imagine how all that slaughtering, butchering, and throwing blood around could bring anyone closer to God. I believe that when we kill our fellow mammals we should mourn, not celebrate; and I view the slaughter as something we need to atone for, not as a means of atonement.  Thank God we switched to worship through prayer about 2,000 years ago!

It would be easy for me to dismiss the earlier technology as an artifact of an ancient culture.  I could simply address the issues of the present day, and campaign for treating all mammals more humanely, killing them only out of practical necessity, and reforming our diets. But I have dedicated myself to Torah study, and that means I must search for deeper meaning in the text, even the descriptions of animal offerings.

When I reread this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (Command), I noticed that the three basic motivations for offering an animal at the altar correspond to three instructions for what to do with the animal’s skin.

Although the book of Leviticus/Vayikra classifies offerings with five different names, covering at least a dozen different situations, they boil down to three reasons for bringing an animal to the altar:  to express individual gratitude or devotion to God; to atone for individual guilt; and to atone for the whole community and/or its religious leaders.

When a man brought an animal offering to express gratitude or devotion (in the Torah only men bring animals to the altar), after the butchery, burning, and feasting, he got to keep the animal’s skin, which had value because it could be tanned to make leather.

We learn in the Torah portion Tzav that when an individual brought an animal offering to be relieved of guilt over a lapse, a wicked thought, a sin of omission, or an unintentional wrong against God, the priest who performed the atonement got to keep the hide.

As for the priest who brings near a man’s rising-offering, the skin of the rising-offering that the man brought to the priest will become his.  (Leviticus/Vayikra 7:8)

or = skin (either human or animal)

When a priest brought an animal offering to make atonement for himself or for the entire community, the skin was burned on the ash-heap outside the camp where the ashes from the altar were taken.  Moses does this in this week’s Torah portion during the ordination of Aaron and his four sons as the first priests of the Israelites, so they can begin their new offices with a clean slate.

And the bull and its skin and its flesh and its intestinal contents he burned in the ash-heap outside the camp, as God had commanded Moses.  (Leviticus 8:17)

The three ways of disposing of the slaughtered animal’s skin make sense on a practical level.  Someone who wanted to draw closer to God out of a devotional impulse, or gratitude for good fortune, should be allowed to keep any part of the animal not used in the ritual.  Why should he suffer any extra economic loss?

However, someone who was guilty of missing the mark in his relationship with God needed to experience a loss, to give up something in exchange for being freed of his guilt.  The priest got the skin because his service enabled the guilty man’s atonement.  (Priests were not paid salaries, or given land to farm, so they received compensation in the form of meat, skins, and bread from various offerings.)

If a priest erred in his holy service, or if the whole community missed the mark (because the priests did not guide them properly), then it makes practical sense that the priest should get no economic benefit from the sacrificial animal’s skin.  Burning the hide adds dramatic impact to this most serious kind of ritual offering.

I can also see symbolic meaning in the three ways of handling the skins.  In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God clothes Adam and Eve in skins before sending them out into the world. Skin is like a garment.  It separates and protects an individual from the rest of the world.  And skin, like a garment, also signals the individual’s public identity and role in the world.

Perhaps the skin of an animal offering represents the skin of the man who brings it.  The Torah mandates that the man who brings an animal  to the altar must lean his hands on its head before it is slaughtered.  This gesture apparently connects the human with the animal, so the offering counts as his.

When someone brought an offering of gratitude or devotion, he was already in a good standing with God; the offering expressed his feelings and brought him even closer to the divine.  His public identity did not need to change.  Therefore he could keep the animal skin.

When someone brought an offering out of guilt, he had stumbled in his service to God.  In order to atone and return to good standing, he needed to recognize, in his heart, that his position in the community and his connection with God must not be taken for granted.  I think he gave the animal skin to the officiating priest as an act of humility.

Why was the skin burned when a priest brought an offering to atone for his own guilt, or for the guilt of the whole community?  The Torah requires burning the skin outside the camp when a priest is ordained, when a priest discovers that he or the whole community has committed a lapse in service to God, and once a year on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for everyone.

The priests of the Israelites, like all religious leaders today, and everyone else who guides people on the level of their souls, have to be meticulous in their service.  If they violate someone’s trust; if they treat other humans without respect; if they preach one thing and do another; if they become so enamored of their role, so dazzled by their own garments, that they fail to examine their inner selves; then their guilt is so great they must burn their animal skins.  That means they must leave their sanctuary and leave the community where they did wrong, going “outside the camp”, and give up their public roles, their animal skins.

What if the animal offering atones for the whole community, like the goat offered to God on Yom Kippur?  Modern Jews do not cast lots on goats on Yom Kippur, but we do spend the day praying.  Our prayers for atonement are in the plural: we have become guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have slandered, and so on.  No one is isolated; we are all responsible for one another.  We share the good and the bad.  We are our brothers’ keepers.  And our membership in the human community is intrinsic to our connection with the divine.

Therefore, when we want to come closer to God, we must all abandon the garments of our public roles.  Burn those animal skins, and let the smoke rise up to the heavens!

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