Moshe Silver
Moshe Silver
Yours for a better world

The weight of gold — sacrifices of love

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Parashat Tzav

I don’t know how to love Him…

                                                – Jesus Christ, Superstar

This week’s Torah portion is a straightforward accounting of a series of offerings and sacrifices to be brought by the priests, each in connection with specific circumstances. In fact, while the types of offerings are specified, the underlying reasons are left for other passages. This portion lists the burnt offering, the meal offering, the specific inaugural offering brought by the priests, the sin offering and the thanksgiving offering, among others, and other aspects of the priestly ritual.

These are the offerings  “… which God commanded Moses on Mt. Sinai on the day God commanded the children of Israel to bring near their offerings to God in the wilderness of Sinai” (7:37-38.)The Hebrew word most commonly used to designate sacrifices or offerings to God is Korban, from the root meaning “to draw near.” Offerings are ways in which we seek to draw near to God. This is exemplified by the very first offerings, both of which are spontaneous — and to which God reacts differently. The first is Cain’s gift — the Hebrew word is Mincha, meaning a gift given freely. God contemplates this first human invention and decides that Cain’s concept is acceptable, but Abel’s execution is superior.

The next offering in the Torah is Noah’s, which is again spontaneous. Noah has been saved from death, and his spontaneous reaction is to slaughter animals as a sign of gratitude — the very animals he was commanded to save from the Flood. This foreshadows rabbinic interpretations of the sacrifices as stand-ins for us: we transgressed, and we deserve punishment. Rather than be killed ourselves, we buy an animal and slit its throat, offering its life — and our expensive asset — to God in our stead.

God smells the “pleasant odor” of Noah’s burnt offerings; God’s reaction to Noah is not one of mercy and compassion, so much as of resignation, perhaps even disgust. “Humans are incorrigible!” God says. “They’ll never learn!” God has destroyed the world for naught.

The weekly Torah reading is followed by a reading from the prophetic books, in Hebrew called the Haftorah. The prophetic reading associated with this week’s reading is a dismal passage from Jeremiah (7:21-8:3 / 9:22-23) in which God despises the people for their sacrifices. “I did not command your forefathers to bring burnt offerings…” says God. “Only this did I command them: ‘Heed my voice, so that I will be your God and you will be my people; thus you will go in all the ways that I shall command you, so that it should be well with you.”

God asks only for a relationship. But the Israelites, coming out of four hundred years of Egyptian culture – and anyone else too, bound as we are within the world of space, time, motion, and our own flesh – cannot express their relationship to God without concrete manifestations. We live in the material world; how are we to relate to a transcendent God? The Revelation at Sinai paradoxically undoes the mystery on which transcendent faith is based. This is a problem created by God, and since that revelation humanity keeps searching for ways to concretize our relationship with the Divine. Despite humanity’s bottomless well of creativity, we must wonder at the complexity of religious observance.

Is there a historical context for the rituals in Leviticus? Maimonides presents the sacrificial rites as something the Israelites learned during the sojourn in Egypt. They were exposed to a highly structured, religious-based society in Egypt; after they left, they clung to the practices and trappings of idol worship as a template for making sense of the world. Once out in the wilderness, they met God face to face. “Come,” said God. “Let’s have a relationship!”

“This is familiar,” said the Israelites. “You want a priest class, and a temple, and a set of rituals. You want songs and prayers — and You certainly will want sacrifices!”

This is hardly the first time the Torah has had to temper its message in response to human actions, and it gives rise to an extensive list of explicit behaviors. We humans need a framework for our relationships. If we are left on our own, most of the time we will not communicate clearly, even — or especially — not with those on whom we are on the most intimate terms. So much is assumed within relationships. We are often cautioned about the ability of what we say to do harm. We should also be mindful of the terrible harm that can be caused by what is left unsaid.

It is not sufficient to love someone. Love is a private, even a selfish emotion. At the very least, we must say to our loved ones “I love you.” And we must listen very carefully to their response. Underlying our beloved’s often unspoken requests lies the theme of “If you loved me you would…” or perhaps, “Since you love me, will you…?” Far from making the love relationship a mere market transaction or a mercenary exchange, we start with broad concepts, those ideas that come most readily to mind, and that we can articulate most easily. But in order for love to take root and truly flourish, it must be constantly nurtured by concrete acts. They may be simple acts — between people it can be flowers, going out for a meal, or even a gesture as simple as a caress, a smile — but just as infants will only thrive if held and cuddled, love between people cannot thrive without ongoing physical expression.

The Israelites need to make their relationship with God real, if it is to last. Thus, God lends it a physical and temporal aspect, including highly explicit instructions. The Torah offers a uniquely Jewish structure of organized religion, saying, “You will have your own practices. To an outsider, they will look like everyone else’s practices: you will have priests, and prayer services, and special clothing and songs. You will have special offerings and sacrifices, and an annual round of holidays.” God says, “You will do all these common human things — but you shall do them in the specifically Jewish way. In the way identified by the Torah. In this way, you shall maintain your unique relationship with Me.”

God is also teaching a meta-lesson. That in order to have an intimate relationship, both partners must clearly express their needs and desires. They must be open — indeed, eager — to hearing each other’s needs. How can we meet the needs of those we love if we do not know what they are? How can we learn what they are, if our definition of “love” is limited to our own feelings?

The Hebrew word for love is ahavah, from the verb “to give.” Our immediate emotional craving is to take from those we say we love. The Torah teaches us that love is a set of behaviors, not a feeling. A set of behaviors that constantly evolves as we learn more about those we love — and more about ourselves. Love resides in the act of giving. It has been said by the rabbis: we do not give to our children because we love them; rather, we grow in love for our children because of how much we give to them. Think deeply on this statement and you will see the truth of it.

In last week’s portion we spoke about the psychological mechanism whereby the act of giving ties us to those to whom we give. If that works so well on a stranger, how much more so when the object of our giving is someone to whom we are tied? Someone without whom our lives will be empty of meaning? Someone — God — for whose love and blessings we yearn, and whom we also struggle to love?

May we spend our lives in the learning and the study and the practice of love.

Yours for a better world.

About the Author
Moshe Silver is a writer and Torah teacher living in Jerusalem. In addition to Semicha, Rabbi Silver holds an MBA in finance and an MFA in creative writing. His creative approach - whether teaching Torah or Shakespeare - has made him a beloved teacher and a sought-after mentor from Wall Street to Jerusalem. As a prayer leader, his unique mix of musicality and spirituality continues to inspire people to discover new meaning in their personal prayer.
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