Mordechai Silverstein

Not by Might, Not By Power, but By Memory

Jews have always had to contend with survival and the exigencies of history. This has been not only a matter of continued physical existence; it has equally been a matter of cultural and religious survival. Jews are the rare people who have faced exiles, perpetual attempted genocides of a physical, cultural and religious nature and the destruction and usurpation of its sacred center. Through inspiration (divine) and genius they have managed to reinvent themselves so as to both preserve and perpetuate their identity and their message. Memory (Zikaron) has played a key role in this miracle.

Memory has allowed the Jewish people to hold close to their hearts that which they were not able to preserve physically and to reinvigorate and reinvent that which they could not perpetuate through actual living.

Parshat Tzav provides us with a vital example. It opens with these words:

The Lord spoke to Moshe, saying: Command Aharon and his sons thus: This is the teaching regarding the burnt offering (Torat haOlah). The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning while the fire on the altar is kept going on it (toqad bo). (Leviticus 6:1-2)

The author of the following midrash, who lived hundreds of years after the demise of the Temple in Jerusalem, at a time when the observance of this sacrificial mitzvah no longer had practical relevance, offered a midrashic reading of the above verse which offers us insight into how the rabbinic sages overcame the exigencies which faced a nation in need of a radical transformation:

…”Command Aharon […]” (Leviticus 6:2) This is what is written [regarding this verse: “With Your (God’s) will, do good to Zion” (Psalms 51:20) and in the following verse: “Then You (God) will desire sacrifices of righteousness, a burnt-offering and a whole-offering.” (Psalms 51:21) That is to say, if Israel does not offer a burnt-offering before the Holy One, blessed be He, Zion and Jerusalem will not be built. For they are only built through the merit of the burnt-offering which Israel would offer before the Holy One, blessed be He. And why is the burnt-offering different, [so that it is] better than all of the other offerings? Because it is called “sacrifices of righteousness,” as it is stated [in the above verse from Psalm], “Then You will desire sacrifices of righteousness, a burnt-offering and a whole-offering.” The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Moshe, “On account of this, the burnt-offering is so beloved to Me. Hence, ‘Command Aharon and his sons,‘ that they be careful with it, to offer it before Me.” (Tanhuma Tzav 14)

The above midrash, of the type known as a petikha (proem), interprets verses from elsewhere in Scripture only to return to the verse of the parasha in the end. It is brought to illustrates the religious mentality of Temple times. The burnt offering, which was entirely consumed on the Temple’s altar, was considered the ultimate sacrificial offering. This status, however, could no longer hold sway and so, the midrash continues by recording an incredible religious “switch”:

Why does it state, “This is the teaching of the burnt-offering (Torat HaOlah)?” This should be understood to mean: “the reading of the Torah”. See how beloved the reading of the Torah is before the Holy One, blessed be He. As there is an obligation upon a man to give all of his money to teach Torah to himself and his children, as it is stated, “Command Aharon and his sons, saying”, that is to say: that they should say it to the Children of Israel, such that they occupy themselves with the reading of the burnt-offering. As even though they [actually] offer a burnt-offering, they would [also] be occupied with its reading, so that they would get merit in the sacrifice and in its reading. And so did Rav Shmuel bar Abba say, “The Holy One, blessed be He, said to Israel, even though in the future the Temple will be destroyed and the sacrifices ended, you should not forget the order of the sacrifices, rather be careful to read them and remember them, for if you do so, I will merit you as if you offered them… (Ibid.)

In order to accommodate the new situation caused by the destruction of the Temple, the sages drew an equation between study and Temple worship, anchoring this idea by asserting that the “study of Torah” is equvalent to offering “the Olah” – or sacrifice. The larger idea expressed here, though, is that memory of the past is a means of perpetuating identity and meaning. Forgetting the past or ignoring it is a dead end. The sages hoped their formula would deter this fate.

May the fire on the altar be vigilantly kept alight!

About the Author
Mordechai Silverstein is a teacher of Torah who has lived in Jerusalem for over 30 years. He specializes in helping people build personalized Torah study programs.
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