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Tzav: The Haftarah as Commentary and Critique

Va’yedaber YHVH el Moshe leimor: Tzav et Aharon v’et banav leimor: Zot torat ha’olah…

And YHVH spoke to Moses, saying: Command Aaron and his sons thus: These are the instructions for the burnt offering…

(Parashat Tzav, Leviticus 6:1-2)

 This is what YHVH Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves! For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not that day give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you.

(Haftarah of Tzav, Jeremiah 7: 21-23)

 For at least 2,000 years the weekly Torah reading has been accompanied by an excerpt from the section of the Hebrew Bible known as the Prophets. This reading is called the Haftarah (or Haftorah, with the Yiddish inflection). Haftarah means “conclusion” or “completion” – it concludes or completes the Torah reading.

The origin of this practice is unknown, although theories abound. What we do know is that these Prophetic passages were chosen deliberately as commentary on the given Torah portion. Sometimes the haftarah amplifies the message of the Torah portion, and sometimes it critiques that message. This is a classic method of rabbinic Torah commentary: when the Rabbis wished to critique an aspect of Torah that they found problematic, they would find passages from elsewhere in the Bible to make their point. In this way, they would not be seen as actively disagreeing with the sacred text, but could still express their view by letting the Bible critique itself.

The Rabbis were in good company, for the Prophets in their own era (10th-4th centuries B.C.E.) established the Jewish norm that self-critique was a necessary component of sacred discourse. The Rabbis had little difficulty finding Prophetic passages that speak to the Jewish imperative to elevate moral behavior over ritual performance.

I have found, therefore, that reading the haftarah portion as a form of rabbinic commentary is a very fruitful approach. The haftarah of Tzav is an excellent example.

The entire portion of Tzav is a detailed description about the proper way in which to offer sacrifices to God: the differing kinds of offerings, the way to prepare them, which parts may be eaten and by whom, etc. As alien as these rituals appear to us today, it is not difficult to imagine the power they held for our ancestors. Rituals can focus our attention and can be filled with meaning – think of the power of a beautiful wedding ceremony, and the importance that we invest into it. But rituals also always have the potential to devolve into rote performance, and the meaning and inspiration that they are meant to evoke can easily be lost.

This was as true in ancient times as it is today. The sacrifices of our Torah portion were meant to symbolize a person’s inner transformation. A sin offering was meant to be accompanied by, and to reinforce, a feeling of repentance. A burnt offering might evoke awe and closeness to God. A Thanksgiving offering was to awaken gratitude.

But the Prophets repeatedly castigated the Israelites for thinking that the sacrifices were an end in themselves, and that God was satiated and content, as it were, as long as they offered their food on the altar. This was not the message of the God who spoke at Mount Sinai, who commanded us to love justice and mercy, and to care for the weak!

Here is a classic example from the Prophet Micah 6:6-8:

 6 With what shall I come before YHVH

and bow down before the exalted God?

Shall I come before YHVH with burnt offerings,

with calves a year old?

7 Will YHVH be pleased with thousands of rams,

with ten thousand rivers of olive oil?

Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,

the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

8 No, YHVH has shown you, O mortal, what is good.

And what YHVH requires of you:

To act justly and to love mercy

and to walk humbly with your God.

The Rabbis inherited this tradition from the Prophets, and they codified it into Jewish law: sacrifice, prayer, and all forms of worship have no value unless the heart is directed toward heaven. That is, the outer performance of rituals must be approached as actions that awaken the inner self. This is certainly my conviction, and what I try to engender with our shared rituals at the Woodstock Jewish Congregation.

Addressing this week’s Torah portion, the Rabbis express this imperative by choosing the words of Jeremiah (cited at the top of this article) as the haftarah. The Rabbis even have the audacity to patch together two separate passages from Jeremiah: 7:21-8:3, and 9:22-23. The Rabbis were clearly willing to reshuffle passages from the Bible in order to strengthen their own interpretation. Speaking in the 6th century B.C.E., Jeremiah makes the rhetorical point that when the Children of Israel first heard God speak at Mount Sinai, there was no mention of sacrifices. The first words they heard at the holy mountain were to obey YHVH, to honor Shabbat, to not steal or murder or lie or covet. Only later do they receive the instructions regarding sacrifices, thus indicating their lesser importance in the hierarchy of God’s desires for us.

The Rabbis are determined to remind us that as we immerse ourselves in Leviticus, the book of the Torah that is preoccupied with the details of ritual performance, we not forget the true purpose of these rituals. God wants something much more difficult and much more exalting from us: to ignite, to tend, and to offer to the world our inner fire of righteousness, kindness, and awe. And so they conclude the hafatarah with these inspiring words from Jeremiah:

9:22 Thus says YHVH, Life Unfolding:

Let not the wise glory in their wisdom,

let not the mighty glory in their might,

let not the rich glory in their riches;

23 Rather let them who glory, glory in this:

that they understand and know Me,

that I, YHVH, practice kindness, justice,

and righteousness on the earth;

it is in these things that I delight,

says YHVH.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Jonathan