Ritual, Morality and Prophetic Justice - D'var Torah on Parashat (Torah portion) Tzav - March 14, 2014
The Book of Leviticus presents a
challenge to us, especially because none of us have witnessed the actual
performance of the rituals of sacrifice.
Chapter 6 of Leviticus
begins with the prescribed procedure for the Burnt offering, the OLAH. This passage doesn't focus only on the
sacrifice itself. It refers more than once to a perpetual
fire that the priest was commanded to keep burning on the altar.
This section also
describes the process by which the priest would take the ashes from the
sacrifice to a pure place outside the camp. In his Union
for Reform Judaism Ten Minutes of Torah commentary this week, Robert Tornberg
likened this priestly act to "taking out the garbage." The priest only attended to that task once he had removed the
vestments he wore for the sacrifice and put on other garments reserved for his
errand of ash disposal.
After reading this passage
with fresh eyes this week, I thought about how it relates to us as we strive to
apply Jewish values to our daily lives.
What might the removal of
ashes represent? What does the
The rabbis explained that
the altar fire was not just burning "upon it," corresponding to the
Hebrew word BO, where “it” was the altar.
BO could mean that the fire was burning "in him," in the priest.
The fire represented the spark of God
inside the priest and within every human being. And what is that spark of God? I believe it is that God and godliness become real in what
we do, in how we treat each other.
So if the altar had to be
cleansed and made ready for the next sacrifice, what are the ways that we can
make ourselves as morally pure as possible?
The words of the prophet
Isaiah come to mind from Chapter 1, verses 16-18. He told his people what God
expected of them and how they could keep themselves pure: “Wash yourselves clean; put away your
evil doings away from my sight. Cease to do evil; learn to do good, devote
yourselves to justice, aid the wronged, uphold the rights of the orphan, defend
the cause of the widow.”
A moral cleansing didn’t just
apply to one’s own personal errors in judgment. It extended to how everyone treated the most
vulnerable people in society back
then. And it still relates
to those attitudes now. We
hear, too many times, that people who are low on the socioeconomic ladder
deserve to be there through their lack of desire to change their position or
their overdependence on outside support. In one recent article, Harvard professor and author Robert
Putnam noted that it is, in fact, the help that people in poverty receive that
give them enough hope to work harder to make ends meet or to get the training
necessary to find a better job.
This Torah reading might teach us
that the ashes that we need to remove from the altar of society are narrow
views about the nature of people who need our support and assistance. We should recognize that they are truly
like everyone else, and that they want to reach a personal level of subsistence
I recently reviewed another text
that speaks about “cleansing our souls” with my seventh graders. We examined the Psalm from which comes
the verse that begins the T'filah, the central section of the service:
"Eternal God, open my lips, that my mouth may declare your
praise." Psalm 51
is associated with the story of David and Bathsheba. After King David
arranged to have Bathsheba's
husband sent out to a battle where death was certain, Nathan the prophet
confronted David with his transgression. It was this Psalm that David is said to have composed
in response to his guilt.
He crafted his words using
some of the same imagery as Isaiah: "Have mercy upon me, O God, as befits
your faithfulness; in keeping with your abundant compassion, blot out my
transgressions. Wash me thoroughly of my iniquity, and purify me of my
Leonard Cohen's well-known song
"Hallelujah" portrays King David at the time of this episode. In Cohen’s lyrics, David offered God a
"broken" Hallelujah. The message of Psalm 51 and
Leonard Cohen's song are clear: we
can still praise God even when we are broken, even before we have taken the
ashes outside the camp. We
can offer praise, heal ourselves and return to a moral path because of that
godly fire that is burning within the altar of our soul.
It is significant that Judaism, a
religion of ritual, has always so greatly emphasized morality as essential to
being close to the divine.
This week, our Psalms class studied Psalm 15, which begins with this
declaration: "Eternal One, who may sojourn in Your tent? Who may dwell on Your holy mountain?
One who lives without blame, who does what is right, and in his/her heart
acknowledges the truth."
We wondered if this passage
applied only to those who observed Judaism or whether it might extend to all
humanity. I would assert
that the response should be YES and YES. Standing
with God means always being conscious of the consequences of our actions, no
matter what faith tradition we follow.
The first items on this
"being close to God" list in Psalm 15 are being blameless, doing what
is right, and acknowledging the truth.
How do we know what is
right and what is really the truth? We are blameless and right, and we have the
proper sense of the truth when we
listen not only to ourselves but also when we learn from other people.
The truth that we acknowledge in
our hearts may come from the still, small, voice of conscience guiding us to
practice our most treasured values, especially those that lead us to treat all
people with respect and to refrain from exploiting or oppressing anyone.
Between the messages of the
Torah reading, the declarations of Isaiah, and the reflections of the Psalmist,
we have before us a vision of what I would call "prophetic
justice." As the priest
kept a fire burning on the altar, while taking the ashes outside the
settlement, we are called upon to feed the fire of goodness, respect,
generosity, and righteousness within us. We are asked to banish outside the realm of acceptable
behavior those actions that dehumanize people through prejudice and through inaccurate
notions that stigmatize them to the point of ostracism from society.
We have the opportunity to stand
on God's holy mountain, with a fire of goodness and of love burning inside of
us. May we ascend that mountain always with a constantly renewed
sense of commitment, determination and hope.