by Rabbi Corinne Copnick

The title of this week’s parsha is Tzav, which means “command.” It comes from the same Hebrew root as “mitzvah,” which also means “commandment,” but which we often translate today as “good deed.” In last week’s parsha, Vayikra (God “called”), the emphasis was on what you, the person, would bring as a sacrifice in ancient Israel, and on the kind of offering –five types were specified — that you would be bringing as your particular sacrifice. Would it be an “ascending offering” (an olah, which is completely burned); a meal offering (a minchah) – that is, cakes made of grains and mixed with oil? Or would it be a sin offering (a chatat, devoid of oil, to be eaten completely by the priest); or a guilt offering (an asham, also eaten by the priest)? Happily, perhaps it would be a peace offering (a shelamim, eaten by the person who brought the offering – the owner of the animal — after the priest has taken his share? A special kind of shelamim was the Thanksgiving offering, one of gratitude brought by a person who had survived a life-threatening event. Other people could be invited to share in the shelamim feast — because the food could only be kept for a prescribed time before being jettisoned. (After all, there was no refrigeration.)

Although sacrificing animals strongly offends our sensibilities and sense of decency today, a kind of democracy was inherent in all these offerings: People were encouraged to bring offerings that they could afford, without any sense of shame for being poor. For example, if you could only afford to bring a bird rather than a meat offering, it was sacrificed with its feathers intact so that the offering would look bigger, not scrawny. Lots of incense was put on the altar so that the offering would smell good to God.

In Tzav the emphasis shifts from the individual bringing the offering to the role of the priests, the priestly garments they should wear, the anointing with oil to sanctify them, and the offerings they should bring themselves to mark beginning to serve in the sanctuary. The High Priest was required to bring a meal offering every day in order to reinforce his humility through continued identification with the impoverished.  Also, as the priests ate, thus sanctifying the offering, the owner of the korban, the sacrifice, would achieve atonement.

What remains relevant today, is the meaning of the noun, “korban” along with the verb “lehakriv.” They mean drawing near, closeness, the desire, through sacrifice, to come close to God. In Judaic culture, it is about love of God. Sacrifice entails giving up something you love in order to come close to the godly essence within yourself. In our contemporary culture, it may mean giving up your leisure time for a worthwhile cause, or sacrificing a much needed vacation in order to pay for your child’s tuition in a good school or college, or to provide care for your elderly parents. Perhaps it means giving as much as you can manage to a charity or standing up publicly for an ideal. Perhaps it means military service to defend your country – although, since the time of the Akeida, when God prevented Abraham from sacrificing his son, Isaac, human sacrifice is prohibited in Judaism. In Judaism, suicide bombers are a sacrilege.

The Jewish tradition also makes clear that a whole range of giving is permitted, from large to small, without shame, depending on your financial circumstances. But, since biblical times, the act of giving in order behave – and feel — like a godly person has remained an integral part of Jewish culture.

After the Second Temple was destroyed in 70 C.E., the Jews were persecuted by the Romans for practicing their faith. After the Bar Kochba revolt in 135 CE, when half a million Jews were killed by the Romans, all of Jerusalem was plowed under. Jews were permitted to enter Jerusalem only on Tisha B’Av, when they were allowed to lament at the Wailing Wall (now called the Western Wall). The Romans had left this retaining wall of the destroyed Temple standing so that the Jews could see what had become of their city.

Without a Temple, without an altar, sacrifices became a thing of the past. Instead, with the gradual growth of rabbinic Judaism, the Talmudic rabbis of the first and second centuries C.E., forbidden to teach Torah, taught about the prophets, what became the Haftarah. They instituted the practice of prayer as a means of drawing near to God, and the donation of money to substitute for sacrifices. It took time for these rabbis, who secretly gathered at first in their own homes as a network of small, like-minded groups, to gain influence, but eventually they did. Their suggestions have held sway as means of keeping – and growing — Jewish communities together until this day so many centuries later.

“Jew and Judaism survived despite the many sacrifices people had to make for it,” writes Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the former Chief Rabbi of Britain. “In the eleventh century, Judah Halevi expressed something closer to awe at the fact that Jews stayed Jewish despite the fact that…they could have converted to the majority faith and lived a life of relative ease (Kuzari 4:23). Equally possible, though, is that Judaism survived because of those sacrifices. Where people make sacrifices for their ideals, the ideals stay strong. Sacrifice is an expression of love” [emphasis mine]. (“Understanding Sacrifice,” Tsav 5776).

At Passover, people tend to marvel at the Hagaddah’s discussion of the five rabbis of old —  Rabbi Eliezer, Rabbi Joshua, Rabbi Elazar the son of Azaria, Rabbi Akiva, and Rabbi Tarphon — who met at B’nai Brak and stayed up the entire night of Passover discussing the Exodus, the liberation of the Jews from slavery in Egypt. How could they find so much to discuss, their students wondered, calling them because it was time to recite the morning Sh’ma? Perhaps the rabbis stayed up so late because they were also discussing their own situation in regard to Roman persecution, and how they could keep their own communities alive without a Temple. Maybe that was when they settled on prayer and donations as substitutes for sacrifices. Maybe they realized that sustained prayer – and monetary gifts to the needy — could bring people close to God. The Talmud tells us that “Rabbi Elazar would give a coin to a pauper, and only then would he pray” (Baba, Batra 10a)

©️Corinne Copnick, Los Angeles, 2018. All rights reserved.