This week’s parashah is Tzav. It is the second parashah of Leviticus and it outlines the rites to be performed by the priests as they offered the sacrifices in the Tabernacle.
We saw last week that the sacrifices expressed the most profound religious and ethical aspirations of the community. The Hebrew term for sacrifice, korban, indicates a desire to draw closer to God, as the Mishcan, or Tabernacle, was an expression of God’s wish to be present in the midst of His people. Sacrifices were offered on behalf of the community and also brought by individuals and families as acts of atonement or expressions of gratitude, celebration or a desire for spiritual wholeness, for ‘shalom’ or ‘shelemut’.
The Tabernacle was not an elite or distant institution. It was constructed from the gifts of ordinary people and the priests were taken “from the midst of the people” to identify with and serve on behalf of the whole community. The Tabernacle was to be a spiritual home for everyone and a special concern in which the poor would be able to participate and offer sacrifices that were within their means. Toward the end of last week’s parashah, in Leviticus 5, the Torah is discussing an atonement offering that involved bringing “a female of the flock, a lamb or a goat” as a sacrifice. We are then told that “if his means suffice not for lamb, then he shall bring … two turtle doves or two young pigeons unto the Lord.” A few verses later we are told that if his means suffice not even for these, then he should bring “the tenth part of an ephah of fine flour for a sin offering.” Similarly, in Leviticus 12, a woman who has given birth should offer a lamb, but if “her means suffice not”, then the accompanying turtle doves and pigeons would be quite acceptable.
It is perhaps also significant in this week’s parashah (6:12-16) that Aaron and his descendants were to bring an offering on the day of their anointing. The offering was a meal offering – the tenth part of an ephah of fine flour, which was similar to the offerings brought by the poorest of the people. On this most significant day in their lives they would have identified with the neediest of the community who in turn would know how precious their offerings were in the presence of God.
The accompanying haftara for our parashah is from Jeremiah 7. It is very rarely read, because Tzav usually coincides with the Sabbath before Passover which, as this year, has its own reading, but it is at first sight a most surprising choice to accompany our parashah.
The first verse, 7:21, tells the people very sharply that they should add the burnt offerings to the other sacrifices and eat the meat themselves rather than bringing it to the altar. “For I spoke not unto your fathers nor commanded them on the day that I brought them out of the Land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings or sacrifices. But this thing I commanded them, saying, ‘Hearken to my voice and I will be your God and you shall be my people and you shall walk in all the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.’”
There are similar sentiments expressed about sacrifices in Isaiah 1:11-14, Hosea 6:6 and Amos 5:21-22.
It is striking that the prophetic critiques do not use the word ‘korban’, which is a key word in Leviticus. The korbanot were not arbitrary ritual acts; they were a language of spiritual aspiration and ethical sensitivity, signifying a desire to be closer to God.
In the age of the Prophets it is quite clear that while the rituals were still performed and the offerings were quite recognisable, there was no longer any sense of community or mutual responsibility. The spiritual and ethical aspirations of the desert Tabernacle survived only among the Prophets and their followers and the sacrifices were no longer korbanot. Sacrifice was a ritual that was believed to secure Divine protection for the city, but no more than that, and it would be magically efficacious, regardless of how the country conducted itself.
Earlier in the chapter, Jeremiah warns the people not to put their trust in the deceptive formula that the Temple of the Lord and its sacrifices would guarantee their security and all would be well, provided the rituals were properly performed, regardless of derelictions, abuses and oppressions. Jeremiah has God lamenting that the commandments are openly flouted and they then “come and stand before Me in this house which is called by My name, saying ‘We are safe’, while their abominations continue unabated.”
The religious life of a community founded on spiritual and ethical idealism had become so distorted that it was almost unrecognisable. The dignified solemnities of the Temple rituals offered reassurance to a society so deeply corrupted that it was on the brink of destruction and evidently did not perceive that anything was amiss.
One can only speculate as to how all of this came to pass. The religious establishment was nowhere to be seen and might well have subscribed to the deceptive Temple ideology that Jeremiah so bitterly opposed. It would have been all too easy for religious leaders to convince themselves that what truly mattered was the sacred world of the Temple and its ritual; what happened beyond the boundaries of the Temple was not their concern.
If this was the approach, it was wholly disastrous: it meant that wrongdoing gradually became acceptable, because no one of any calibre spoke out against it, and the silence of the religious establishment would have been construed as tacit acceptance, which left prophetic rebuke marginalised and lacking credibility. The sacred order of the Temple did not emerge unscathed: as ethical sensitivities gradually melted away, the meaning of the sacrifices was transmuted as we have described and left impoverished and quite unrecognisable.
The Haftara concludes with Jeremiah 8:23: “Let him that glorieth glory in this, that he understandeth and knoweth Me, that I am the Lord; I act with steadfast love, justice and righteousness in the earth, for in these things I delight, says the Lord.” God is engaged with humanity beyond the boundaries of the Temple and religious leaders must be likewise, for if love, justice and righteousness are permitted to pass away, then the Temple will not help us.