offering, for the sake of the one who brings it, for the sake of God, for the sake of the altar fires, for smelling the aroma, for imagining how God will enjoy that aroma, or for the sake of the sin that a sin offering is supposed to atone for. But Rabbi Yosi says that even if you lack one of these kavanot, the sacrifice is still valid (BT Zevachim 4:6).

It’s hard to summon deep kavanah every time I pray. When a prayer is new to me, I can get so focused on saying it correctly that I don’t stop to think about the meaning of the words. When a prayer is familiar, I have a bad habit of praying from memory and then worrying if I absentmindedly skipped a phrase. I have to keep finding new ways into each prayer: visualizing the imagery of heavenly creatures praising God or God’s nostrils flaring in anger if we forget the commandments, my memories of singing these same prayers with my dad as a child, or my hope that praying will kindle my awareness of the miracles of nature as I go through my day.

There is a legend of a shepherd who was almost illiterate. As he stood in the back of the synagogue, embarrassed by his lack of knowledge but longing for connection with God, he began reciting the aleph-bet, saying, “God, You know what’s in my heart; can You please arrange these letters into the right words?” Overcome with emotion, he didn’t realize his voice was getting louder and louder until the members of the congregation began shushing him, wanting to throw him out for distracting them. But the rabbi stopped them. “The passion of his prayers reached heaven when none of ours could.”

But kavanah without the structure of prayer is also problematic, easily dissolving into inarticulate emotion. In his celebrated book Man’s Quest for God, Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Prayer without kavanah is like a body without a soul…a body without a soul is a corpse, a soul without a body is a ghost.” Neither can function alone.

And so we return to Aharon and his sons, nervous and excited in their new clothes, making their offerings for the first time, trying to do everything correctly, and our hearts ache because we know they can’t sustain this bright new passion. All they can do, all we can do, is hope we can find some way to rekindle it with the right kind of fire every time we approach the altar.


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Parashat Tzav
March 23, 2019 I 16 Adar II 5779

Annual | Leviticus 6:1-8:36 (Etz Hayim p. 613; Hertz p. 429)

Triennial | Leviticus 8:1-8:36 (Etz Hayim p. 621; Hertz p. 435)

Haftarah | Jeremiah 7:21-8:3, 9:22-23 (Etz Hayim p. 627; Hertz p.439)

D’var Torah: Good Intentions

Lisa Feld, Conservative Yeshiva & Hebrew College Rabbinical Student

There’s an old saying that in theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice, but in practice, there’s a great deal of difference. For weeks, we’ve been hearing every last detail about the planning and construction of the Mishkan (Tabernacle), the priests’ clothing and the High Priest’s special equipment, the different kinds of offerings. Now, in Parashat Tzav, we finally move from theory to practice as Moshe ordains Aharon and his sons as priests and they perform the first actual sacrifices in this new sanctuary. The parasha ends by telling us that Aharon and his sons did everything God had commanded, everything went smoothly, and we’re off to the best possible start in this new stage of our relationship with God.

Or so it seems. Only a short chapter later, Aharon’s sons will die for offering “strange fire” on the altar. However smoothly things might be going on the surface in Tzav, something underneath clearly isn’t working right if the whole system of priestly sacrifices goes off the rails so quickly.

Because the text focuses only on what’s going right, we have to step back and think about what’s not being said if we want to unravel this mystery. We’re told all the details of how one is supposed to offer a sacrifice except for one: do you need proper kavanah (intention) for that sacrifice to be accepted? And if so, what constitutes that kavanah?

In Tractate Zevachim, the rabbis of the Mishna claim that there are six different proper intentions one can have in offering a sacrifice: doing it for the sake of the

D’var Haftarah: Confronting the Darkness

Rabbi Mordechai Silverstein, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

The prophets were perceptive social critics. They lived both among their people and apart from them. As agents and intermediaries between God and the people, the prophet was not always sure of how God would respond to the frequent human failure to mend themselves. This deep awareness of God’s high expectations and the great human challenge of meeting them, often led to despair.

One ambiguous verse in this week’s haftarah, makes this palpable. In 8:4 Jeremiah says that God told him: "כֹּ֚ה אָמַ֣ר יְהוָ֔ה הֲיִפְּל֖וּ וְלֹ֣א יָק֑וּמוּ אִם־יָשׁ֖וּב וְלֹ֥א יָשֽׁוּב" But this verse is very difficult to translate. The standard translation treats it as a pair of rhetorical questions: “Say to them: Thus, said the Lord: ‘When men fall, do they not get up again? If they turn aside, do they not turn back?’” (8:4) But this seems an overly optimistic read given the context. In the next two verses, God says: “Why is this people—Jerusalem—rebellious with a persistent rebellion? They cling to deceit, they refuse to return. I have listened and heard: They do not speak honestly. No one regrets his wickedness and says, “What have I done!” They all persist in their wayward course like a steed dashing forward in the fray.” (8:5-6)

So perhaps we should read 8:4 instead as Rashi does – as a statement and not a rhetorical question: “When men fall, they do not get up; when they turn, they [God’s decrees] do not turn.” Even though they turn, their wickedness is too great to avert their fate. Or, perhaps, as the Targum Jonathan translates it, “When they turn, [it will be revealed that] they did not turn” because they quickly return to their evil ways. Read this way, Jeremiah is struggling with the real possibility that people cannot change themselves, or at least not enough to make national redemption and reconciliation with God possible.

Jeremiah’s pessimism was a product of the environment in which he lived – an immoral nation on the verge of devastation, it’s chance to repent long past. It was for these people that he had no hope.

But what purpose is there to preach despair? Perhaps, Jeremiah hoped to shock his people, to force them to confront the bleakness of their situation. Perhaps he thought, paradoxically, that the only hope for eventual redemption was to dash their hope for immediate redemption.

Indeed, the ultimate message of the prophets and of our tradition in general is that when we fall, we can get up; if we turn, we can return. Fixing is possible, even if it isn’t quick or easy.



Parashat Tzav Self-Study

Vered Hollander-Goldfarb, Conservative Yeshiva Faculty

Our parasha belongs to the Kohanim (priests). We open with general instructions for sacrificing, and move on to the process of turning Aharon and his sons from ordinary Levites into Kohanim.

1) 6:1-6 describes the rules for the sacrifice of the Olah that is completely consumed on the alter. Poetically, the Torah repeats 3 times that the fire in the alter will be kept burning on it at the end of each subsection of the instructions. What would be the purpose of such a poetic structure for what seems to be ‘dry’ operating instructions?

2) After instructions for various types of sacrifices, a new, related topic is opened: The coarse fat lining the internal organs (helev) may not be eaten, even if the animal was not brought to the alter as a sacrifice (7:22-25). What might be the reason for prohibiting eaten the fat even when it is not sacrificed?

3) In 7:37-38 we are told that these were the instructions given by the LORD to Moshe at Mount Sinai when He commanded the Israelites to sacrifice their sacrifices to the LORD. Why might it be important to know when and where these instructions were given?

4) Chapter 8 is a description of the daily routine for the 7 days of preparations for Aharon and his sons to be appointed as Kohanim. Why would there be a need for a 7 day ceremonious preparation period before the actual ceremony that will appoint them as Kohanim?

5) In 8:1-2 Moshe is told to ‘take Aharon and his sons with him’. At any mention of a person being instructed to take another person, Rashi comments that he has to ‘take him by words’ – win him over so that he becomes a willing participant in the task. Why might Aharon have been hesitant here, and what do you think that Moshe could tell him to win him over?





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