Parshat Tzav: Kavanot & Blessings
By Rabbi Adina Allen
Parshat Tzav, the 2nd parsha of Vayikra, the book of Leviticus, on its surface, contains the mundane details of an ancient ritual that we no longer practice. Every line of this parsha concerns how and when to do what kind of animal sacrifice, what to do with the blood, guts, kidneys, fat etc. In an era when the ancient temple no longer stands and we are no longer a religion centered around animal sacrifice, it can be a challenge to find ways to relate to these verses today. This challenge, however, contains the beauty of Torah and of Judaism: it continually challenges us to take the same material and see it in ways; it requires us to carry with us our past, but to continually transform it, and to see this transformation as an act of honoring and devotion; and it asks us to find ways to relate to even those things that seem most foreign from our experience.
Aliyah 1 - 6:1-3 SPRING CLEANING
Our first Aliyah concerns the instructions for the burnt offering, one of numerous kinds of offerings that we are instructed to give. Interestingly, these instructions begin with the end - they focus not on how to actually give the offering itself, but how to prepare for and clean up after the offering. Verse 3 reads, “and the priest shall put on his linen garment, and his linen breeches shall he put on his body, and he shall take up the ashes which the fire has consumed with the burnt offering on the altar and he shall place them beside the altar. Then he is to change clothes, and carry the garments outside the camp to a ritually pure place. Why such care and concern for and focus on the ashes? As our friend and colleague R. Gray Myrseth taught me this week, here "God is teaching Moses and Aaron that you have to take out the old to make room for the new. And, not only that, but both halves of the equation are equally holy. Removing the ashes isn’t just taking out the trash - it’s honoring the loss of the previous day’s offering and clearing a space for what will take place in the day to come.” It is no coincidence that we read this parsha right around the start of spring, and around Passover, times of cleaning house, both physically and spiritually.
We invite up for this Aliyah all those in need of spring cleaning - either of your house, or of your soul. Those looking to release old things, patterns, thoughts relationships that are no longer serving you so as to make way for something new and generative.
Blessing: May all you who have come to Torah today seeking support in cleaning house, be blessed with the strength, fortitude and courage to take on this sacred task. May you have the energy to get on your hands and knees to search out all those nooks and crannies to find what may be lurking, and may you have compassion for what you find. As did the priests with the ashes, may you honor that which is no longer serving you and send it gratitude for the role it played and, in so doing, may you clear space for something new and nourishing to come.
Aliyah 2 - 6:4-6 HOPE
Our second Aliyah explains to us why such an emphasis on the removal of ashes. Twice in these next 3 verses we are told that there is to be an aish tamid tukad al ha mizbe’ach, lo tichbeh - the fire is to be kept burning on the altar and shall not go out. In order to have an eternally burning flame, we must remove the refuse of what has be burnt so that fresh oxygen can continue to feed the flames. The ner tamid, or eternal flame, is an important symbol in Judaism, standing for an unbreakable connection to the Divine, to hope, to the life force, linking generations past present and future. For some, it can be so hard in this world we live in to keep our flame burning. Especially the flame of hope, given brokenness, pain and suffering. For some - this is something we endure personally, for others, we may be one step removed by are reminded of daily in the news.
For this Aliyah we’d like to call up those whose flame of hope needs some tending, either because of events in your own personal life, or because of events in our broader world. Please come to Torah now.
Blessing: May all you who have come to Torah today seeking a tending of the flame of hope be blessed with a renewal of spirit. May you allow yourself the space to feel the devastation, overwhelm, despair, confusion, anger - the gamut of emotions that arise and may you be blessed with community - family and friends and colleagues that can help hold and support you and share in the struggle. And through doing so, may you reconnect to that flame of hope for what may be. We know that even the brightest fire starts with a tiny spark. With the image of the priest as your guide, may you be blessed to discover the sacredness in a daily practice of tending the flame.
Aliyah 3 - 6:7-11 BREAKING BINARIES
Our next Aliyah describes the meal offering with mention to the unleavened bread we are to eat with it. “Lo ti’afeh chametz” it shall not be baked with leaven, verse 10 emphasizes. We are of course, preparing, or about to start preparing after this wedding :) for Passover, our Chag ha Matzot - Festival of Unleavened bread. Matzah is a fascinating thing at Passover. It is called both the bread of our affliction and the bread of our freedom - it symbolizes both aspects of our journey: oppression and liberation. So often in our world we want to hold things as opposites: seeing situations, people, ourselves as either this or that. The truth is that nothing and no one is just one thing. We all contain multitudes and when you look at us closely, we defy simple categorization.
For this Aliyah we’d like to call up all those in the process of breaking out of some kind of binary or identity that you’ve been in - either that you’ve put yourself in or that others have put you in. Be it professional, personal, - some thing you’ve always told yourself about who you are, that you are finding no longer to be true. Those seeking to expand into a more complex and multifaceted way of seeing yourself and others.
Blessing: may all you who came to Torah today seeking to break out of easy categorization of who you are be blessed to welcome all parts of yourself into the picture. Like the matzah of Passover, none of us are just one thing. Adam and Eve, the first humans from which we all descend, can actually be understood as being created as one person, created both male and female - encompassing of all aspects of what it means to be human. May you be blessed with and openness of mind and heart as you come to allow in these other parts of self, and in so doing may you shine radiantly, lighting up the world not only for yourself, but for all of us.
Aliyah 4 - 6:12-16 INTIMACY
Our next Aliyah gives instructions for the personal offering that Aaron and his sons are to make. Ze Korban Aharon u’vanav Asher yakrivu l’Adonai. There is that word Karov, yakrivu, that winds its way through our entire parsha, and through the entire book of Leviticus. A Korban is an offering, and the root, Kuf Reish Bet means "to draw close.” The extensive details on how and when to offer sacrifices are really an instruction manual in how to maintain closeness.
For this Aliyah we’d like to call up all those seeking a return of connection, a deepening of intimacy in relationship - either to yourself, to someone in your life, or to God.
Blessing: may all you who came to Torah today seeking a renewed closeness in relationship be blessed. As we learn from our parsha, it is natural and perhaps even necessary to at times fall out of closeness, even to those we love most. In our parsha, reconnection is found through offering and gift giving. In your own life and relationships, may you experiment with and be blessed to discover for yourself practices what gifts and offerings serve to reopen the heart to intimacy and connection. And may you find comfort from our parsha in knowing that rupture is natural, and a return to closeness - when it is desired - is always possible.
Aliyah 5 - 6:17-23 JUSTICE
Our next Aliyah describes the ritual for the sin offering. There are different reasons for each of our sacrifices - some are to be given when we’re happy and grateful, some, like this one, are to be given when a wrong has been committed. As we sit here in shul today doing sacred holy work, we are connected to the thousands of folks across the country marching to end gun violence. As we read of the blood shed in the sin offering sacrifice, we may think of the blood of all those who have so tragically lost their lives to this madness. This particular sin of course is woven through with so many others: racism, violence, poverty, lack of social services, xenophobia, to name a few.
For this Aliyah I’d like to call up all those working on - or seeking to work on - activism to repair the sins of our country. Please come to Torah now.
Blessing: may all you who have come to Torah today be blessed in your work as activists. Activism takes many forms, and demands many things from us: tenacity, conviction, empathy, courage, strategy, dedication, collaboration, to name a few. Anyone involved in activism does so because you feel deeply and passionately about the world. May you never loose this full-bodied feeling - this empathy and love that brought you into this work. May you be blessed to know or to find where your unique gifts lie, how you uniquely can contribute to rebuilding the world. As with the offerings on the altar, may you give of your gifts freely and generously, and may this energy you put out come back around to sustain and support you 100-fold.
Aliyah 6 - 7:1-6 GIFTS
Sacrifices were hard for me to understand until our teacher from rabbinical school, R. Nehemia Pollan, helped me to see these sacrifices actually as gifts. In his powerful piece The Gift Must Always Move, poet and translator Lewis Hyde writes about gift giving as a foundational human need. We each have tremendous gifts, only some of which we may recognize and be able to name. When God gives instructions for building the Mishkan - the tabernacle in the desert during our years of wandering - God requests gifts from the people. It is these gifts that become the foundation and structure of our holy site. To offer up gifts, we first must be able to claim that we have something to offer.
For this Aliyah we’d like to call up all those who could use a little help recognizing, appreciating and honoring the gifts you bring to this world.
Blessing: May all you who have come to Torah today be blessed to know - and to always be in a process of discovery of - the multitude of gifts within you. Be they skills or qualities of self, things that show up in your professional work, or in the way you treat strangers, things that are societally recognized and rewarded, or softer, quieter gifts that often go without recognition but that make this world a better place. May you know that what you have to offer is sacred and it is needed. And may you know that your ability to live fully into your own gifts creates the invitation, space and model for others to live into theirs.