D’var Torah: Dan Savitt (Tzav)

Sacrifices & Contemporary Society: Never the Twain Shall Meat? (Parashat Tzav)

It is customary to begin a child’s Torah studies with the matter of sacrifices: “Rabbi Asei said: Why do we start children in their Torah studies with Leviticus and not Genesis? Since children are pure and the sacrifices are pure, the pure ones (i.e., children) come to occupy themselves with pure ones (i.e., sacrifices)” (Leviticus Rabbah 7:3).

And yet, there is no doubt that countless Jewish parents ask each year, “Why does my kid’s bar/bat mitzvah portion have to be about sacrifices?” With Pesaḥ only a couple weeks away, the topic of sacrifices comes up yet again when we sit at our seder table and point to the zero’a (the shank bone which symbolizes the Pesaḥ offering that our ancestors ate).

References to sacrifices make up a sizable portion of the Torah, with the majority of appearances in Leviticus and Numbers, but what is it about sacrifices that troubles so many of us? For some people it’s difficult to contextualize or relate to sacrifice as the means by which our ancestors used slaughtered animals to connect with and worship God. In fact, Rambam (Maimonides, 1135–1204, Cairo, Egypt) in The Guide for the Perplexed, speaks unenthusiastically about the sacrificial system claiming that this was not God’s primary desire for humankind, but only allowed this practice to continue because such a significant change to the status quo “would have been contrary to the nature of man, who generally cleaves to that which he is used” (3:32). Additionally, people needed something to counteract the attraction of idolatry.

That being said, one of the positive outcomes of many sacrificial offerings is that they functioned somewhat like block parties. According to Dr. Tamara Cohn Eskenazi, The Effie Wise Ochs Professor of Biblical Literature and History at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion in Los Angeles, “Sociologically speaking, sacrificial rites in antiquity served to bind community by providing a common meal that made scarce and costly meat available to many. Certain sacrifices functioned like a neighborhood barbecue celebrating a modern holiday: an opportunity to socialize and to eat well” (1460).

While meat is probably more affordable and certainly less scarce than in Temple times, perhaps we have lessened how we value what we eat and have also lost out on the communal meal opportunities. Admittedly, I have not eaten red meat in almost 14 years, but I know that eating meat is still a part of many people’s diet. Yet this should give us pause as to how we relate to what we eat. In Many Waters, the fourth book of Madeleine L’Engle’s Time Quintet, we hear about a powerful hunting scene in which the hunter would “always stop to thank the animal he had killed, thank it for giving them the food necessary for life” (204).

As we turn toward Pesaḥ and our s’darim (seders) where the symbolic nature of food is taken to a whole new level, we are obligated to point out the zero’a. For some, the zero’a is one of the more difficult items on the seder plate to relate to, and can seem so out of place with contemporary society. Whether or not we would like to restore the sacrificial system, we can at least appreciate the value and importance that sacrifices had for our ancestors. Along with expressing gratitude to God, perhaps it’s also necessary to have some acknowledgement that a living creature gave its life so that we could eat. After all, as we say in the first blessing before the morning Shema (yotzer or): the Creator of everything . . . and everything includes all living creatures.

Ḥag Kasher v’Same’aḥ!

Bibliography

Anderson, Gary A., “Sacrifice and Sacrificial Offerings: Old Testament”, The Anchor Yale Bible Dictionary, ed. David Noel Freedman 

(New York: Doubleday, 1992). 871.

Eskenazi, Dr. Tamara Cohn. The Torah: A Women’s Commentary. CCAR Press. Kindle Edition.

Jewish Publication Society (2008-09-15). The Jewish Bible: A JPS Guide (Kindle Locations 5249, 5312, 5323, 5367-5368). Univ of 

Nebraska – A. Kindle Edition.

L’Engle, Madeleine. Many Waters. Holtzbrinck Publishers, 1986.

Maimonides, Moses. The Guide for the Perplexed. Trans. M. Friedländer. Second Edition, Revised. London; New York: George 

Routledge & Sons Ltd.; E. P. Dutton & Co., 1919. Print.

D’var Torah: Rabbi Rachel Silverman (Vayikra)

Last Friday marked 365 days of this pandemic. My kids’ school closed on March 12, 2020 and, like schools all around the country, did not reopen for the rest of the school year. As I scrambled with my family to figure out living, working, and learning all together at home, I kept being reminded of the fact that human-beings thrive on predictability. We are our rituals in many ways; most of us are creatures of habit that cannot succeed without a regularity. 

So it’s not a surprise that, when the world upended that for us, we tried to recreate a sense of stability in other ways. One of the very first things my family did was to create a schedule for our day, mirroring our familiar preschool routine as much as possible. 

While we didn’t stick to the schedule for all that long, merely having it helped set a rhythm for those early days of lockdown and provided a sense of order for our lives. Life was nothing close to pre-pandemic, but we were able to create a “new normal” that made our situation that much more bearable. 

A similar sense of predictability is on display in this week’s parsha. Vayikra opens with a lesson for the priests on sacrificial offerings that are to be made, and continues into a discussion of inadvertent sins – in particular, what happens when something doesn’t go as one expected. 

I’m drawn to this last piece. When someone sins, even accidentally, our sense of being is disrupted. Something didn’t go as planned. Instead of letting the situation spiral out of control, the Torah gives us explicit directions on how to restore order. Like the Israelites of the Bible we are comforted by rituals and a sense of knowing what to do next. 

Last Passover, our communities were reeling from being shut down and struggling to figure out how to do Pesach while in quarantine. It turned out, it was quarantine we didn’t know how to do – Passover was easy. It was a ritual that we had done hundreds of times before, and, like God’s instructions in Vayikra, the order of the seder provided a sense of order for all of us feeling unbalanced. 

May this year’s Passover provide a similar sense of familiar ritual and order – and may our lives go back to “normal” soon. 

Shabbat Shalom. 

Rabbi Rachel Silverman, Temple Israel of Sharon

D’var Torah: Rabbi Marcia R. Plumb (Vayakhel- Pikudei)

שֵׁ֣שֶׁת יָמִים֮ תֵּעָשֶׂ֣ה מְלָאכָה֒ וּבַיּ֣וֹם הַשְּׁבִיעִ֗י יִהְיֶ֨ה לָכֶ֥ם קֹ֛דֶשׁ שַׁבַּ֥ת שַׁבָּת֖וֹן לַיהוָ֑ה כָּל־הָעֹשֶׂ֥ה ב֛וֹ מְלָאכָ֖ה יוּמָֽת׃ 

On six days work may be done, but on the seventh day you shall have a sabbath of complete rest, holy to the Eternal; whoever does any work on it shall be put to death.

לֹא־תְבַעֲר֣וּ אֵ֔שׁ בְּכֹ֖ל מֹשְׁבֹֽתֵיכֶ֑ם בְּי֖וֹם הַשַּׁבָּֽת׃ (פ 

You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.

During this pandemic and election season many of us have been watching the news non-stop. I know I was. I checked every morning  and every evening to find out what bad news had emerged during the night, or while I was working. Every day, it seemed that there was another crisis or disturbing political drama. The news created an internal fire for many of us. It has been as if what we read in the paper added fuel to the fire of our pandemic anxiety. 

Also, we have all been struggling with Zoom fatigue,the tiredness and neural stress that comes from extreme computer use. The dedicated Schechter students, teachers, administrators, and parents have all been using the incredible technology that has enabled us to learn, teach and work while in lockdown. While we are grateful for it, we also know that Zoom fatigue is a real experience, studied by Stanford University. One of the things researchers suggest is turning off Zoom regularly. 

We Jews already have a system in place for following this scientific recommendation. We have the mitzvah from our double parasha this week, Vayakhel- Pikudei. Stop working on Shabbat. Rest. Kindle no fire. Let go of anything that kindles our anxiety or inner psychological burning. 

Shabbat has been my salvation from news and screen overload. It is the only day I avoid the TV and computer. I do lead Shabbat services online, but I still find that taking an extended break from headlines, and looking at people up close, sitting all day and staring at myself on a screen is a huge relief. It feels like putting out a fire.

The commandment to keep Shabbat is a gift I have always treasured, but this year, it has been crucial for my well-being. I hope that this Shabbat will bring you peace of mind, a restful soul, and healing for your heart. 

By Rabbi Marcia R. Plumb, Congregation Mishkan Tefila, Brookline