Parshat Tzav has much in common with Parshat Vayikra. Both deal with the sacrificial order and cite many of the same sacrifices. One major distinction, which seemingly caught the eyes of the sages, was that in Parshat Tzav, the discussion of each of the sacrifices is introduced by the words “Zot Torat – this is the teaching [regarding]…” (Leviticus 6:1), namely, this is the Torah of this given thing. For the sages, who lived after the destruction of the Second Temple and for whom the Temple ritual was but a memory, these words struck a chord and inspired them or, at least, served as a justification for ideas which allowed them to navigate their new reality without totally forgoing their past.
The sages learned from the use of the word “Torah” that there would come a time when the study of Torah and, in particular, the laws governing the sacrificial order would be invested with special significance as we note in the opinion of Rav Huna in the following midrash:
[This is the Torah of the burnt offering…] Rav Huna noted two things: The exilic communities will only be ingathered on the account of the study of the Mishnah. From where do we learn this? [From the verse]: Though they give (yeetnu) among the nations, now I will gather them up (return them from exile)” (Hosea 8:10) [The word “yeetnu” in Hebrew means “give” but in Aramaic it means “to study”] Rav Huna also said: ‘For from where the sun rises until it sets, My name is honored among the nations, and everywhere where pure incense and sacrifices are offered in My name, for My name is honored among the nations.’ (Malachi 1:11) And are sacrifices offered in Babylonia? Rather, this must be talking about Mishnah study. Said the Holy One Blessed be He: When you busy yourselves with Mishnah, it is as if you make offerings… (adapted from Midrash Vayikra Rabbah 7:3, Margulies ed. pp. 155-6)
Rav Huna’s interpretations illustrate two rabbinic strategies for maintaining a link to the past while mapping out the strategy underpinning rabbinic Jewish identity both in exile and after the Temple’s destruction: 1. Torah study will serve as a means for ensuring a return home; 2. Torah study will serve as a replacement for what can no longer be done on account of the exile.
For Rav Huna, who was the head of the Jewish community in Babylonia in the 3rd century as well as one of its important sages, the study of the sacrificial order was more than merely an act of nostalgia. It represented the security of a “home away from home” and a means for guaranteeing that returning home would forever be a possibility. Torah study became the portable Jewish homeland, one which would carry the Jewish people through the ages so that they would not lose who they were and would forever remain in contact with God. With it there never truly be in exile and without it, there could never be true restoration and return.