Tags: Aaron's sons, Leviticus, Moses and Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, ordination, prophets and priests, torah portion
The Israelites complete the tent that will serve as a portable temple at the end of the book of Exodus/Shemot. Moses consecrates the altar and the priests who will perform all the required rituals in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, the second portion in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra.
Moses assembles the whole community outside the entrance of the new Tent of Meeting. In front of everyone he washes his brother Aaron and Aaron’s four sons, then dresses them in the white, gold, red, purple, and blue ritual garments described in the book of Exodus/Shemot.1
The ceremony continues with the ritual slaughter of a bull and three rams, offerings of animal parts and three kinds of flat cakes, and the application of anointing oil and blood from the slaughtered animals in various locations and combinations. (See my post Tzav: Horns, Ears, Thumbs, and Toes.) After the gorgeous new ceremonial garments are spotted all over with oil and blood they are holy—dedicated to God. So are Aaron and his sons, but they are not yet priests.
Moses leaves them with a supply of boiled meat (from the second ram) and leftover grain products (from the grain offering), and gives them strict instructions:
You must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day of melot the days of your milu-im; because in seven days yemallei your yad. (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:33)
melot (מְלֺאת) = filling up, being full, fulfilling, completing. (A form of the verb mala, מָלַא = filled, was full.)
milu-im (מִילֻּאִים) = ordination; setting for a jewel to fill. (From the root mala.)
yemallei (יְמַלֵּא) = it will fill up. (Another form of the verb mala.)
yad (יַד) = hand; power, ability.
mala yad (מָלַא יַד) = Literally: filled the hand. Idiomatically: ordained.2
According to God’s instructions to Moses in the book of Exodus, one part of the ritual will be repeated each day during this seven-day period: the slaughter of a bull and consecration of the altar with its blood.3 But Aaron and his sons will simply sit in the tent entrance in their spattered garments, gradually eating their portions of the meat and grain offerings that they had shared with God.
God commanded to do what was done today, to atone for you. And you must sit at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, and you must watch over the watch of God, so you will not die; for so I was commanded. (Leviticus 8:34-35)
The Torah does not say whether the long ritual served as a general atonement and spiritual purification, or whether it atones for Aaron’s sin of making the golden calf back in the book of Exodus.4
Nor does it say what Aaron and his sons must watch over or guard for seven days. Many commentators have written that they spend the seven days meditating on the rules of holiness and ritual purity for serving God.5
Another viewpoint is that they are mourning, because they have a premonition that at least one of them will die on the eighth day, when they first serve God as official priests.6 But when Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, in next week’s Torah portion, it comes as a shock to everyone.
The Torah also quotes Moses as telling Aaron and his sons that they must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days because “it will fill up (yemallei) your ability (yad)”. Maybe it takes seven days in the entrance to God’s dwelling-place to fill up with sufficient holy awe to be able to conduct the business of holiness.
What strikes me is that Aaron and his sons are neither born nor trained to be priests. They get their new positions without any previous job experience.
Up to this point, Aaron has not been the sort of man who wears a gold medallion on his forehead saying “Holy to God”. It’s clear in the book of Exodus that God only calls Aaron in because Moses makes so many objections to the job God gives him at the burning bush.7 To his credit, Aaron greets his long-lost brother without jealousy, and willingly serves as Moses’ sidekick. When the Israelites are attacked by Amalek on the way to Mount Sinai, Aaron literally supports Moses’ arm and helps him save the day.8 But when Moses climbs Mount Sinai and does not return for 40 days, and the people panic and ask for idols, Aaron makes the golden calf.
Now Aaron is promoted from Moses’ unreliable assistant to High Priest. Aaron will officiate over the ritual offerings in the sanctuary. Aaron will light the menorah. Aaron will be in charge of God’s dwelling place.
Aaron’s four sons are also getting major promotions. They have not done anything of distinction, though they would be treated with the respect simply because they are Aaron’s sons.9 Now they are being ordained as priests. They will be the only people besides Moses and Aaron and Moses who are allowed to enter the Tent of Meeting, the only people allowed to handle the holiest objects inside it. Only they will turn the offerings of their people into smoke that ascends to God.
For seven days Aaron and his sons sit inside the sanctuary, in the entrance of the Tent of Meeting. Perhaps they face out, gazing at the bronze altar and the wash-basin in the sunlit courtyard. Perhaps they face in, gazing at the golden menorah, incense altar, and bread table under the tent roof, not to mention the curtain screening off the ark itself. For seven days they sit there, without distractions, realizing they will spend the rest of their lives dedicated to holy service.
I doubt they are doing anticipatory mourning for the coming deaths of Nadav and Avihu. But they may be mourning for their old way of life, which has ended forever. At the end of seven days, they will be the servants of God’s dwelling-place, who must act as God’s representatives every waking minute.
Their new lives as priests are imposed on them. They do not apply for the job. They do not even hear God call them, the way prophets in the Hebrew Bible are called into service. Moses simply tells them what God told him do. It might seem like a great honor to them, or it might seem as arbitrary as an accident.
At least they are granted seven days to sit at the entrance of their new lives, experiencing the grief, fear, awe, and whatever else comes along, letting the transformation sink in.
We don’t have a Moses to set aside seven days for us when we face a sudden major change in life. But we have the example in this week’s Torah portion. May everyone who can take time on the threshold between an old life and a new one receive the inspiration to sit and reflect. And whenever our lives change, may God fill up our ability to meet the new challenge.
(An earlier version of this essay was posted in March 2010.)
1 Exodus 28:1-43, 39:1-31. See my post Tetzavveh: The Clothes Make the Man.
2 The source of this idiom is not known, but it may be related to the elevation offering, the tenufah (תְּנוּפָה), in which priests lay the meat or grain cakes to be offered on their palms and either hold them out, raise them, or wave them toward God before burning them. A tenufah was part of the ordination ceremony for Aaron and his sons (Leviticus 8:26-28).
3 Exodus 29:35-38.
4 Exodus 32:1-8, 21-25. See my post Ki Tissa: Out Came this Calf!
5 e.g. 13th-century rabbi Moses ben Nachman (a.k.a. Ramban, Nachmanides), paraphrased in Elie Munk, The Call of the Torah: Vayikra, trans. by E.S. Mazer, Mesorah Publications, 1992, p. 71; 19th-century rabbi Sampson Raphael Hirsch, The Hirsch Chumash: Sefer Vayikra, Part 1, trans. by Daniel Haberman, Feldheim Publishers, Jerusalem, 2002, p. 277.
6 Midrash Tanchuma, a collection of commentary from the 5th through 8th centuries C.E., paraphrased in Munk, p. 72. Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, do die on the eighth day, consumed by a fire from God (Leviticus 10:1-2); and Moses forbids Aaron and his two surviving sons to engage in mourning for them (Leviticus 10:6-7). The seven days sitting at the tent entrance are compared to the initial seven-day mourning period of shivah, but “sitting shivah” is a later Jewish custom.
7 Exodus 4:10-17.
8 Exodus 17:8-13. See my post Beshallach: Hands Up.
9 Aaron’s two older sons, Nadav and Avihu, are treated as if they are elders when they walk partway up Mount Sinai with the 70 regular elders, Moses, and Aaron to behold a vision of God’s feet (Exodus 24:1, 9-11).
Tags: book of Isaiah, book of Jeremiah, haftarah, idol worship, Leviticus, religion, Temple in Jerusalem, torah portion, Vayikra
Every week of the year has its own Torah portion (a reading from the first five books of the Bible) and its own haftarah (an accompanying reading from the books of the prophets). Last week the Torah portion was Vayikra (Leviticus 1.1-5:26) and the haftarah was Isaiah 43:21-44:23. This week the Torah portion is Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36) and the haftarah is Jeremiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23.
The first two Torah portions in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra consist entirely of instructions for making offerings on the altar: what each type of offering is for, what kind of animal or grain should be brought, and how the priests should process them. In Leviticus, this is the primary way to worship God, so the instruction manual is important.
The two accompanying haftarah readings both declare that offerings on God’s altar are meaningless when people are also making and worshiping idols.
The children of Judah have done what is bad in My eyes, declares God. They have set their abominable idols in the House with My name on it, defiling it. And they have built shrines of the Tofet in the valley of Ben-Hinnom, for burning their sons and their daughters in the fire, which I did not command and which did not arise in my mind. (Jeremiah 7:30-31)
Jeremiah decries the placement of statues of other gods right in God’s temple (“house”) in Jerusalem, as well as the practice of Tofet-worship in the valley below. The haftarah from Isaiah points out that a craftsman might burn part of a log to burn for heat and cooking, and carve another part of the log into a statue to which he bows down and prays.
Yotzeir of an idol—
All of them are emptiness;
And what they crave
Cannot be useful. (Isaiah 44:9)
yotzeir (יֹצֵר) = one who shapes, forms, fashions.
Other gods and the statues that represent them are empty, useless. God is the yotzeir of real humans; but a human is a yotzeir of false gods.
Jeremiah agrees that worshiping other gods is useless. In a prophecy that follows this week’s haftarah, Jeremiah says:
And the towns of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem will go to the gods for whom they sent up offerings in smoke, and call for help. But they [these gods] will certainly not rescue them at the time of their adversity. (Jeremiah 11:12)
The haftarah in Isaiah goes a step further, and declares other gods simply do not exist.
Thus said God, king of Israel
And its redeemer, God of Armies:
I am first and I am last
And except for Me there are no gods. (Isaiah 44:6)
The haftarot in Jeremiah and Isaiah agree that God punished the people of Judah for making and worshipping other so-called gods by sending in the Babylonian army to conquer the land and destroy Jerusalem and its temple. (See my post Haftarah for Bo—Jeremiah: The Ruler of All Armies.)
Does that leave any hope for the future? Jeremiah, who witnessed the siege of Jerusalem in 589-587 B.C.E., predicts only more disaster.
And the carcasses of these people will be food for the birds of the sky and for beasts of the earth, and there will be no tomorrow. (Jeremiah 7:33)
And death will be preferable over life for all the remainder of those remaining from this wicked family, in all the places where I will push them… (Jeremiah 8:3)
But chapters 40-66 of the book of Isaiah were written at least 50 years later, after the Babylonian empire had been replaced by the Persians. Although the Jews did not get an independent kingdom again, the new Persian emperors granted them religious freedom and let those who wished go back to Jerusalem and build a second temple for their god.
The haftarah from Isaiah interprets this Persian policy as God’s intervention. After criticizing the Israelites for their idolatry, the haftarah says:
I have wiped away like a mist your rebellion
And like a cloud your transgressions.
Return to Me, for I have reclaimed You. (Isaiah 44:22)
How can they return? What should they do that is more important than making offerings at a rebuilt altar?
This week’s haftarah from Jeremiah says they should follow God’s directions for the right way to behave in the world.
Heed My voice, and I will be your god and you will be My people; but you must walk on the entire path that I command you, so that it will go well for you. (Jeremiah 7:23)
Last week’s haftarah from Isaiah says they should praise God to the rest of the world.
This people yatzarti for Myself:
My praise they should report! (Isaiah 43:21)
yatzarti (יָזַרְתִּי) = I formed, I shaped, I fashioned. (From the same verb as yotzeir above.)
Instead of forming statues of empty, useless gods, the people should report what the real God is.
But the Israelites of Judah turned deaf (according to Jeremiah) and mute (according to Isaiah) where God was concerned.
We still make idols, 2,600 years later, and we still worship “gods” that are ultimately useless. Some people pursue power as if it were the source of life—until their careers or families crash and they discover they live in a spiritual exile. Others dedicate themselves to accumulating or spending money—until a disaster reveals how they devoted so much time and energy to something so transient. We do not need an anthropomorphic god to send an army against us; serving the false gods we create carries its own intrinsic punishment, preventing us from leading full and meaningful lives.
A Jeremiah can point out that the wrong path leads to a bitter death. Sometimes this is the slap in the face we need to wake up.
But an Isaiah can give us hope for a second chance, however late in life. If we return to God—if we return of a life of appreciating reality (one form of praising God), appreciating one another, remembering we are only human, and rejoicing when we come home to our better selves—then the divine spirit will wipe away our former false worship like a mist, like a cloud. We can change, and true meaning can return to our lives.
Tags: fire offerings, leavened, Leviticus, matzot, minchah, prayer, todah, torah portion, unleavened
by Melissa Carpenter, maggidah
If you mix flour and water, spread it flat, and slap it in the oven at once, what comes out is a matzah (plural: matzot): “unleavened bread” that is really a large, bland cracker.
If you mix flour and water and let the mixture sit indoors for six to nine days, adding more flour and water each day, you get frothy sourdough starter, thanks to the activity of wild yeast—invisible microorganisms that cover everything, even flour. Add more flour to the starter, spend a day kneading it, shaping it, and letting it rise twice, and put the balls of dough in the oven. What comes out is chameitz: loaves of leavened bread. To get from flour and water to loaves of sourdough bread takes at least seven days.
The difference between matzot and chameitz is critical in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”), and even more critical in the Torah readings for the following two weeks, during the holiday of Passover/Pesach.
The Torah first mentions matzot in the book of Genesis/Bereishit, when Abraham’s nephew Lot meets two strangers in the town square of Sodom and invites them home.
He urged them very much, so they turned aside to him and came into his house. And he prepared food and drink, and he baked matzot, and they ate. (Genesis/Berieshit19:3)
matzot (מַצּוֹת) = (plural) unleavened “bread”.
Lot’s wife is not involved in this act of hospitality. Lot himself, who may not even know whether she has dough rising somewhere, simply mixes flour and water and spreads it on the hot inner surface of the oven, so that at least his guests will have crackers to eat with their meal.
The first mention of chameitz in the Torah is in the book of Exodus/Shemot, when God tells Moses what the Israelites should eat during the night of the final plague in Egypt, in preparation for the exodus the next morning. They must eat their meat roasted (the fastest way to cook it) and their bread as matzot (the fastest way to bake it). And every year after that, they must remember the event with matzot:
Seven days you shall eat matzot; but on the first day you shall eliminate se-or from your houses, because anyone who eats chameitz, that soul shall be cut off from Israel—from the first day to the seventh day. (Exodus/Shemot 12:15)
se-or (שְׂאֹר) = leavening agent, sourdough starter.
chameitz (חָמֵץ) = leavened bread, leavened food.
The Torah forbids the people of Israel to eat or own leavened bread during Passover. It also says that leavened bread must never be burned on the altar for God. But this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, gives directions for two kinds of offerings that include matzot burned on the altar: the grain offering and the thanksgiving offering.
And this is the teaching of the minchah: Sons of Aaron, bring it close before God, to the front of the altar. Then (one) shall elevate his handful: some of the fine flour of the minchah and some of its oil and all of its frankincense. Then he shall make it go up in smoke on the altar for a soothing aroma, a memorial portion for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 6:8)
minchah (מִנְחָה) = grain offering; tribute or gift to express respect and allegiance.
The loose flour sprinkled with oil and frankincense can be burned on the altar because it is dry, and therefore unleavened.
A similar rule applies to the thanksgiving offering, which is made by someone who has emerged safely from a dangerous or oppressive situation. This type of offering includes both meat and grain products, and is divided into three portions: one to burn up on the altar for God, one for the officiating priest to eat, and one for the donor and his guests to eat.
And this is the teaching of the slaughtered-animal of the wholeness-offering that is brought close to God: If as a todah he brings it close, then he shall bring close along with the slaughtered-animal of todah [the following]: round bread of matzot mixed with oil, and thin matzot sprinkled with oil, and fine flour loaves soaked through with oil, along with loaves of chameitz bread. He shall bring close his offering: along with the slaughtered-animal, his whole todah. (Leviticus 7:11-13)
todah (תּוֹדָה) = thanks; thanksgiving offering (one category of shelamim = wholeness-offering).
In other words, the donor brings animals for slaughter, three kinds of matzot, and loaves of leavened bread. Portions of the animals and the matzot are burned on the altar. The officiating priest gets one of each kind of item (including a loaf of chameitz). The rest of the food, including the chameitz, is eaten by the donor and his guests.
Once again, matzot are considered more “holy” than chameitz.
In the first century C.E., Philo of Alexandria wrote that leaven is forbidden on the altar because it makes dough rise, and nobody should be inflated and puffed up by arrogance or insolence in front of God.
In the 19th century C.E., Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch suggested that chameitz stands for independence, and matzot for dependence. In a thanksgiving offering, Hirsch wrote, the chameitz represents the donor’s well-being and independence in the world. The matzot acknowledges that he regained his worldly independence only through God, upon whom he is always dependent.
As a modern Jew, I am happy to offer prayers and blessings as my tribute (minchah) and my thanks (todah) to the divine. But when I am addressing God, I do not want to waste my time begging a parent-figure to give me what my inflated ego wants. Instead, I want to acknowledge that I am not in charge—with an expression of humility, like tribute to a king, like matzot in a minchah offering.
I also want to give thanks for the amazing and wonderful universe I live in, knowing that I and the rest of the universe exist only because of forces I cannot imagine or control. I want to acknowledge that I am not in charge—with an expression of dependence and appreciation, like giving thanks, like the matzot in a todah offering.
And while I’m at it, I want to express my gratitude for life by sharing my food with others, like the donor of a todah. One of the things I want to share is some chameitz, some lovely leavened bread that stands for my joy over the small sphere of independence and power I have been given.
(Next week, check my blog for Tzav & Pesach: Unleavened, Part 2, which will discuss how ideas about leavened versus unleavened bread apply to the holiday of Passover.)
Making a fire-offering in front of the Israelite sanctuary was nothing like lighting a candle at a pretty home altar. For every type of fire-offering except the grain-based minchah, according to the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, the donor must bring an animal, lay hands on its head, then watch the priests slaughter and butcher it, sprinkle the blood, and burn all or part of it on the communal altar to generate smoke for God’s pleasure.
Killing and burning animals may have been spiritually moving to the ancient Israelites, but today we can apply their categories of offerings to a more ethical set of procedures. Last week I suggested new meanings for fire-offerings in general, as well as for the first kind of fire-offering in Leviticus, the olah or rising-offering. (See last week’s post, Vayikra & Tzav: Fire Offerings Without Slaughter, Part 1.)
In the order of their appearance in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, the other five types of fire-offerings are:
2) minchah (מִנחָה) = allegiance-offering; a gift to a king as a sign of homage or respect. (Minchah offerings are made out of grain.)
A person who offers a minchah for God, he shall offer fine flour, and he shall pour oil over it and place frankincense upon it …and the priest shall make a memorial portion go up in smoke on the altar, a fire-offering of soothing fragrance for God. (Leviticus 2:1-2)
When I burn part of my toast, it only sets off the smoke alarm. But before I eat bread, or any other food, I say a blessing to give thanks for it. The blessing is my gift of allegiance to the source of all life.
3) shelamim (שְׁלָמִים) = wholeness-offering. (From the same root as shaleim (שָׁלֵם) = complete, safe and sound, at peace.)
If he offers it as thanks … then he shall offer from each one, out of the whole offering, a gift to God; it shall belong to the priest who sprinkles the blood of the shelamim. And if the slaughtered animal of his offering is for a pledge or a donation … (Leviticus 7:12-16)
The animals and grain products in the shelamim were divided into three portions: one to be turned into smoke for God, one for the priest to eat, and one for the donor and his guests to eat in God’s presence.
When we give thanks today, we often thank the people who helped us (even though they did not sprinkle blood). We add a tangible gift or a donation for more generous thanks. And every time we make a donation, we add to the world’s supply of generosity—which brings more wholeness and holiness into the world.
4) chataat (חַטָּאת) = reparation-offering. (From the root chata (חָטָא) = miss the mark, commit an offense against God; make amends for doing wrong.)
If one person from among the people of the land should chata unintentionally, by doing one of the commandments of God that should not be done, and he incurs guilt—if the offense that he committed becomes known to him, then he shall bring his offering … and the priest shall make reconciliation for him and he shall be forgiven. (Leviticus 4:27-31)
What can we do today when we realize, after the fact, that we did something wrong? When I inadvertently violate a practice I have set for myself (for example, when I bite into what I thought was a vegetarian omelet and discover bacon in my mouth), I rectify the error to the extent that I can, and say a short prayer for discernment. For me, that is sufficient reconciliation with the divine inside me.
But when I realize I did something that hurt another person, I have to do something harder in order to reconcile both my conscience and the person I wronged. I have to find a calm time to talk with the person, then say what I think I did wrong and apologize. Next I give the other person a chance to say how the offense looked to them. If I need to explain anything, I try to do it humbly, without defending my ego. Then I ask what I can do to make up for what I did. If the other person says “nothing”, but still seems hurt, I make a suggestion. When we have agreed on reparations, I perform them. Only then can I be forgiven, both by the other person and by myself.
5) asham (אָשָׁם) = guilt-offering. (From the root asham (אָשַׁם) = incur guilt.)
If a person offends and betrays God’s trust and lies to his fellow about a pledge, or a loan, or a theft, or fraud; or he finds a lost item and lies about it, and he swears falsely … he shall return the stolen item that he stole or the fraud that he committed or the pledge that was left with him or the lost item he found … and he shall pay back the principal and add a fifth … And he shall bring his asham to God … And the priest shall make reconciliation for him before God, and he shall be forgiven for anything that he does to become guilty. (Leviticus 5:21-26)
Today we have many reasons to pass a guilty verdict on ourselves, including the reasons listed above. The Torah says that when we become guilty, in order to be forgiven we must make reparations to the person we have wronged, and also bring an asham, a guilt-offering, to God.
I think we need an updated version of the asham in order to forgive ourselves. When you have made reparations, and you still feel guilty, what ritual can you perform to clear yourself? For some people, the answer is to give a large donation to charity, in money or labor. For others, the answer might be to conduct a ritual that includes washing with water and saying prayers borrowed from the Yom Kippur repentance liturgy.
6) milu-im (מִלֻּאִים) = ordination-offering. (From the root mala (מָלַא) = fill, fulfill. Filling someone’s hands meant ordaining someone as a priest.)
Then [Moses] offered the second ram, the ram of milu-im, and Aaron and his sons laid their hands on the head of the ram. (Leviticus 8:22)
The milu-im appears to apply only to people ordained as clergy. But if our goal is to become a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exodus 19:6), then we need to give ordination-offerings whenever our hands are filled up—whenever we receive authority to act in the public sphere.
What can we give today in return for this authority? Humble service, regular prayers that we might be worthy, and the grace to step down again at the right time.
When the ancient Israelites wanted to give God fire-offerings, offerings of the heart, they could come to the altar and follow the established rituals. They knew what to do, and probably the death, blood, and smoke made the rituals more impressive for them.
Today we have to think harder about our practices. Yet we can still give six kinds of offerings to the divine, with the fire of our hearts. We can rise higher (olah), give allegiance (minchah), cultivate wholeness through thanks and generosity (shelamim), repair mistakes (chataat), undo guilt (asham), and turn our positions of authority into holy ordinations (milu-im).
Let’s keep on giving our own offerings! And may the whole world someday become a holy nation.
Tags: fire offerings, Leviticus, torah portion
Every year, when I start to read the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, my teeth clench. The first two Torah portions (Vayikra—“And It Called”, and Tzav—“Command”) consist of rules about offerings at the altar. And most of these offerings involve bringing forward a living animal, laying a hand on its head, and then slitting its throat, sprinkling blood, butchering it, and waving around or burning various pieces.
This is difficult reading for someone who stopped eating mammals and birds 18 years ago because they are too much like human beings.
The Torah teaches that we should not offer human beings at the altar, only animals and grain. But the instructions for offering a mammal always include laying hands on the animal’s head before it is slaughtered. This act transfers the donor’s identity to the animal, so killing and offering it is like sacrificing oneself for God.
For the ancient Israelites, domesticated mammals and birds had economic value. That made them suitable gifts for God. But what use would God have for a dead animal? In the book of Leviticus, the fatty parts of the animals are burned up into smoke, which ascends to the heavens, and the scent pleases God. When the priests or the donors eat other portions of the animal, they are partaking in the holiness of the sacrifice.
I can understand the desire to present God with a gift—out of sheer gratitude for our lives in the world, or out of a desire to return to harmony with the divine after we have strayed. I am also grateful that Jews have moved beyond killing animals at an altar. But what we can give to God instead?
The portions Vayikra and Tzav lay out the procedures for six kinds of gifts to God. For all six, at least part of the gift is a fire-offering, burned on the altar. The first type of fire-offering the Torah discusses is the rising-offering.
…and the priest shall bring all of it and make it go up in smoke on the altar; it is an olah, an isheh of restful fragrance for God. (Leviticus/Vayikra 1:13)
olah (עֹלָה) = rising-offering. (From the root alah (עלה) = go up.) In an olah the entire slaughtered animal is burned up.
isheh (אִשֵּׁה) = fire-offering. (From the word eish (אֵשׁ) = fire.)
For the ancient Israelites, fire was not just the way to cook meat and make smoke. God manifested as something that looked like fire. And Biblical Hebrew, like English, used words like “burning” and “inflamed” to indicate consuming emotions such as anger.
Today, we might make an isheh, a fire-offering, by praying, chanting, or meditating with a specific intention about passion. If our passions about spiritual matters are easily inflamed, we might imagine offering our emotionality on the altar to burn itself out. We might visualize the smoke rising and dissipating into a clear, calm sky. Then we can be at rest with the divine.
If passion seems to be lacking in our search for God, we might imagine feeding the fire on the altar through our words or breath, so that the sparks of our buried feelings can become flames and rise like smoke.
The first type of offering in Leviticus, the olah, was the only one which stayed on the altar fire all night, until it was completely burned up into smoke.
Today, if we want our souls to keep rising up toward the divine, day and night, we have to keep tending the fire of our desire to make the most of our lives. The last thing we need is a wet blanket.
I have often smothered my own fire with a wet blanket of repetitive worrying. I am training myself to notice when the dripping edge of my blanket flops down again, so I can flip it away from the embers. For me, a good intervention is to sing a prayer or chant. It’s even better if I walk around the block while I am singing. After my mood has risen higher, I can have a better conversation with myself.
Next week I will look at the other five types of fire-offerings described in the Torah portions Vayikra and Tzav, and how we might address the impulse behind each one today—without slaughtering animals.
The last Jewish temple was razed in the year 70 C.E., almost two thousand years ago, when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. So what use do we have, today, for an instruction manual for priests officiating at the altar?
This week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”) tells priests what to do with the grain offering and four types of animal offerings (or sacrifices) brought to the altar at the front of the sanctuary. These instructions ares certainly of historic interest. But do they matter to our own psycho-spiritual lives?
For the past two thousand years, Torah commentary has answered yes—by finding deeper meanings embedded in the practical instructions for the priests. One example is the Torah’s insistence that the fire on the altar must burn through the night and never go out.
Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the Teaching of the olah: It is the olah that [stays] on the hearth, on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire in the altar must be kept burning. (Leviticus/Vayikra 6:2)
olah = ascending, going up; that which ascends; an animal offering completely burned on the altar and thus turned entirely into smoke that ascends to God
And you shall keep the fire on the altar burning, you shall not let it go out; and the priest shall kindle wood on it each morning, and he shall arrange the olah on it and cause the fat of the shelamim to ascend on it. A continual fire must be kept burning on the altar; you may not let it go out. (Leviticus 6:5-6)
shelamim = offerings of peace and wholeness; animals offered to express thanks or to fulfill a vow, and divided into portions to be burned into smoke for God, portions for priests to eat, and portions for the donors and their guests to eat
The olah was offered twice a day, morning and evening. Other offerings were burned on the altar during the day, but at night the sanctuary was closed to everyone but the priests, and no new offerings were added to the fire. For the other kinds of animal offerings, including shelamim, the priests cut up the animal and reserved some pieces for eating, but burned the choice fatty parts on the altar. The fatty pieces burned up quickly, but the olah was the whole skinned animal, so it burned slowly.
One interpretation of the commandment to keep the altar fire going all night is simply that the burning of the olah must be completed, no matter how long it takes. And who would want to deprive God of even a whiff of the smoke? (See my blog post “Pinchas: Aromatherapy”.)
But the ancient Israelites must have appreciated the symbolic value of a fire that must never go out as much as we do today. In next week’s Torah portion, Shemini, Aaron and his sons inaugurate the sanctuary’s altar with various offerings, lighting the wood themselves. But then a fire comes straight out from God and consumes every animal and animal part smoldering on the altar in one glorious rush. From then on, the fire that burns on the altar has a direct line of transmission—or ignition—from that divine fire. As Rabbi Elie Munk pointed out in the early 20th century, “Fire is an allusion to the Divine Word, the Torah.” The word of the Torah must never be extinguished.
The fire on the altar is both divine and man-made, rekindled daily by the priests. Thus it also represents our passionate desire for God, which we must never extinguish.
Rabbis in the Talmud tractate Yoma deduce that all the fire used for holy purposes in the sanctuary is taken from the continual fire on the altar, including the fire used to kindle the incense altar, to burn coals in the censer on Yom Kippur, and to light the seven lamps of the golden menorah. Naturally a fire started by God would be the most holy fire to use. But Rabbi Munk compares the fire on the outer altar, used for animal offerings (i.e. sacrifices) to “the altar of duty” on which we should sacrifice our egotism. Only if we tend the fire of that altar will we be able to kindle the fire of passion for God that brings us exaltation.
Other commentary points out that although the fire on the altar must never go out altogether, it burns low during the night, and in the morning a priest kindles fresh wood from it. The late 19th-century Hassidic rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger wrote that the rekindling in the morning means that every day a new light comes to those who serve God. Our spirits burn low at night, that is, when our soul are distracted by darkness and evil. But when we remove the ashes from the previous day’s sacrifices, we are removing the waste in our lives, and that uplifts us so that we receive new light from God.
About 100 years later, in 1998, Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank zt”l wrote the following double translation of Leviticus 6:6. (The first sentence is a literal translation; the second interprets it at a psycho-spiritual level.)
This is the law of the elevation offering, the elevation offering on the flames on the altar all night until the morning, and the fire of the altar shall be kept aflame on it.
This is the teaching which enables you to transcend. Transcend the ‘small’ by moving toward whatever enflames the passion in your heart even during times of illusion and conventional life-issues, leading towards the time of enlightenment. Let the parts of the Torah which seem brightly lit to your heart blaze and shine and fire up those parts of your soul that are ignitable.
Both Rabbi Yehudah Leib Alter of Ger and Rabbi David Wolfe-Blank of Seattle compared the nights in this Torah verse to the times when we are distracted and deluded. I believe these times of darkness are frequent for everyone; it is so easy to get caught up in the obsessions of our society, so hard to keep out minds on a higher purpose in life. But if we stick to a practice of offering ourselves to the divine at regular intervals—perhaps every morning and evening, like the olah—then we keep the fire from going out altogether. Another way to keep the fire from going out during the dark times, according to Wolfe-Blank, is to keep paying attention to the parts of the Torah that light up our hearts.
Then after every dark night comes a morning, and by the grace of God we see beauty and light again. We recall our own souls, and the fire is rekindled—the fire of desire and enlightenment and glory, the fire that is both a gift from God, and our gift to God.
When I read all the gory details of the animal sacrifices in the book of Leviticus/Vayikra, I have to work hard to imagine how all that slaughtering, butchering, and throwing blood around could bring anyone closer to God. I believe that when we kill our fellow mammals we should mourn, not celebrate; and I view the slaughter as something we need to atone for, not as a means of atonement. Thank God we switched to worship through prayer about 2,000 years ago!
It would be easy for me to dismiss the earlier technology as an artifact of an ancient culture. I could simply address the issues of the present day, and campaign for treating all mammals more humanely, killing them only out of practical necessity, and reforming our diets. But I have dedicated myself to Torah study, and that means I must search for deeper meaning in the text, even the descriptions of animal offerings.
When I reread this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (Command), I noticed that the three basic motivations for offering an animal at the altar correspond to three instructions for what to do with the animal’s skin.
Although the book of Leviticus/Vayikra classifies offerings with five different names, covering at least a dozen different situations, they boil down to three reasons for bringing an animal to the altar: to express individual gratitude or devotion to God; to atone for individual guilt; and to atone for the whole community and/or its religious leaders.
When a man brought an animal offering to express gratitude or devotion (in the Torah only men bring animals to the altar), after the butchery, burning, and feasting, he got to keep the animal’s skin, which had value because it could be tanned to make leather.
We learn in the Torah portion Tzav that when an individual brought an animal offering to be relieved of guilt over a lapse, a wicked thought, a sin of omission, or an unintentional wrong against God, the priest who performed the atonement got to keep the hide.
As for the priest who brings near a man’s rising-offering, the skin of the rising-offering that the man brought to the priest will become his. (Leviticus/Vayikra 7:8)
or = skin (either human or animal)
When a priest brought an animal offering to make atonement for himself or for the entire community, the skin was burned on the ash-heap outside the camp where the ashes from the altar were taken. Moses does this in this week’s Torah portion during the ordination of Aaron and his four sons as the first priests of the Israelites, so they can begin their new offices with a clean slate.
And the bull and its skin and its flesh and its intestinal contents he burned in the ash-heap outside the camp, as God had commanded Moses. (Leviticus 8:17)
The three ways of disposing of the slaughtered animal’s skin make sense on a practical level. Someone who wanted to draw closer to God out of a devotional impulse, or gratitude for good fortune, should be allowed to keep any part of the animal not used in the ritual. Why should he suffer any extra economic loss?
However, someone who was guilty of missing the mark in his relationship with God needed to experience a loss, to give up something in exchange for being freed of his guilt. The priest got the skin because his service enabled the guilty man’s atonement. (Priests were not paid salaries, or given land to farm, so they received compensation in the form of meat, skins, and bread from various offerings.)
If a priest erred in his holy service, or if the whole community missed the mark (because the priests did not guide them properly), then it makes practical sense that the priest should get no economic benefit from the sacrificial animal’s skin. Burning the hide adds dramatic impact to this most serious kind of ritual offering.
I can also see symbolic meaning in the three ways of handling the skins. In the book of Genesis/Bereishit, God clothes Adam and Eve in skins before sending them out into the world. Skin is like a garment. It separates and protects an individual from the rest of the world. And skin, like a garment, also signals the individual’s public identity and role in the world.
Perhaps the skin of an animal offering represents the skin of the man who brings it. The Torah mandates that the man who brings an animal to the altar must lean his hands on its head before it is slaughtered. This gesture apparently connects the human with the animal, so the offering counts as his.
When someone brought an offering of gratitude or devotion, he was already in a good standing with God; the offering expressed his feelings and brought him even closer to the divine. His public identity did not need to change. Therefore he could keep the animal skin.
When someone brought an offering out of guilt, he had stumbled in his service to God. In order to atone and return to good standing, he needed to recognize, in his heart, that his position in the community and his connection with God must not be taken for granted. I think he gave the animal skin to the officiating priest as an act of humility.
Why was the skin burned when a priest brought an offering to atone for his own guilt, or for the guilt of the whole community? The Torah requires burning the skin outside the camp when a priest is ordained, when a priest discovers that he or the whole community has committed a lapse in service to God, and once a year on Yom Kippur, the day of atonement for everyone.
The priests of the Israelites, like all religious leaders today, and everyone else who guides people on the level of their souls, have to be meticulous in their service. If they violate someone’s trust; if they treat other humans without respect; if they preach one thing and do another; if they become so enamored of their role, so dazzled by their own garments, that they fail to examine their inner selves; then their guilt is so great they must burn their animal skins. That means they must leave their sanctuary and leave the community where they did wrong, going “outside the camp”, and give up their public roles, their animal skins.
What if the animal offering atones for the whole community, like the goat offered to God on Yom Kippur? Modern Jews do not cast lots on goats on Yom Kippur, but we do spend the day praying. Our prayers for atonement are in the plural: we have become guilty, we have betrayed, we have robbed, we have slandered, and so on. No one is isolated; we are all responsible for one another. We share the good and the bad. We are our brothers’ keepers. And our membership in the human community is intrinsic to our connection with the divine.
Therefore, when we want to come closer to God, we must all abandon the garments of our public roles. Burn those animal skins, and let the smoke rise up to the heavens!
(This blog was first posted on March 22, 2010.)
And Aharon and his sons leaned their hands on the head of the bull of the purification offering. And Moshe slaughtered it. and took the blood and put it on the horns of the altar all around with his finger, and he purified the altar. And he poured out the blood on the foundation of the altar, and he made it holy for atonement. (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:14-15)
And Aharon and his sons leaned their hands on the head of the ram. And Moshe slaughtered it, and took some of its blood and put it on the rim of Aharon’s right ear, the thumb of his right hand, and the thumb of his right foot (i.e. his right big toe). Then he brought near the sons of Aharon, and Moshe put some of the blood on the rims of their right ears, the thumbs of their right hands, and the thumbs of their right feet. Then he dashed (the rest of) the blood on the altar, all around. (Leviticus 8:22-24)
In Exodus, God tells Moses how to ordain the first priests, his brother Aaron and Aaron’s four sons. In Leviticus, in this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (Command), Moses performs the ordination ritual. The ritual involves elaborate costumes, consecration with oil, three sacrificial animals, purification with blood, and finally seven days spent at the entrance to the Holy of Holies.
During this ritual, whenever Moses anoints the future priests with oil, or purifies them with blood, he also sprinkles the oil or blood on the altar where future animal sacrifices will be burned. Thus the priests are identified with the altar.
The main function of both the priests and the altar is to facilitate animal sacrifices. Animal sacrifices are the primary means of worshiping God in the five books of Moses. (Prayer, according to Jewish tradition, is introduced by Hannah in the first book of Samuel.) Once the priests are ordained in this week’s Torah portion, the Israelite people bring their animals to the altar in front of the sanctuary, and there the priests officiate over the slaughter and over the burning of certain parts to create a fragrance pleasing to God. Thus both the priests and the altar are intermediaries between the people and God.
Moses consecrates all five future priests by sprinkling them with anointing oil (as well as pouring some on Aaron’s head). He sprinkles the same oil on the altar and the tools that will be used there. But the distribution of the blood of purification is more elaborate. The altar gets bull’s blood on the “horns” at its four corners, then at its foundation. The blood of a ram is dashed all around the altar. The men get ram’s blood on their right ears, right thumbs, and right big toes.
Is there any connection between where Moses puts blood on the altar, and where he puts it on Aaron and his sons?
Many commentators say that daubing blood on the future priests’ extremities, from top to toe, symbolically purifies their entire bodies. On this theory, applying blood to the altar’s top extremities and bottom foundation symbolically purifies the entire altar.
But why those particular extremities? Rabbi R.S. Hirsch wrote that the ear stands for hearing and understanding, the hand for creative work, and the foot for striving to advance — all of which are expected of a community’s spiritual leaders.
Why does Moses apply the blood to the right ear, hand, and foot, rather than to the left? The Torah associates the right hand with power. Probably this association extends to the whole right side. (Later, kabbalists associated the right side with active energy, and the left with restraint and judgment.)
The altar for animal sacrifices has neither ears nor hands, but Moses applies blood to its four horns and its foundation. The Torah sometimes uses the word for “horn”, keren, as a metaphor for a ray of light, or as a symbol of strength and power. The “horns” protruding from the top corners of the altar are probably a reminder of the horns of the cattle, sheep, and goats sacrificed there. But they also might stand for the altar’s connection with the divine, evoking the idea of powerful rays of light pointing up toward the heavens.
Moses also poured the blood of purification on the ground at the foundation, or footing, of the altar. Both the priests and the altar must be pure where they reach toward heaven, and also where they have their feet on the ground. Only then can they be holy intermediaries between God and the people.
Kabbalists take note: Leviticus 8:15 uses the word yesod for the base of the altar. Yesod means “foundation”, but it is also one of the ten sefirot in kabbalah, the ten aspects of divine action in our world. The sefirah of yesod is associated with the ego, and also with creative, generative power. On the human body, it corresponds metaphorically with the sexual organs.
The Hebrew word for “foot”, regel, is sometimes used in the Torah as a polite synonym for a man’s sexual organ. In this Torah portion, Moses daubs blood on the future priests’ big toes on their right feet.
Do our own symbolic altars, where we sacrifice some of our animal aspects, need to be purified at the level of sex and ego? Does our own service to the divine, our own inner priesthood, also need to be purified at the level of yesod?
(This blog was first posted on March 13, 2011.)
What does it take to change Aaron, Moses’ older but not wiser brother, into the high priest of all the Israelites? What does it take to elevate Aaron’s four sons into assistant priests?
In this week’s Torah portion, Tzav (“Command”), Moses assembles the whole community, and in front of everyone he washes the five men, dresses them in all the ritual garments described in the book of Exodus/Shemot, then sprinkles anointing oil on them (as well as on everything in the sanctuary). Next Moses daubs the blood of sacrificed animals on the right ear, right thumb, and right big toe of each of them. After burning the offerings, Moses takes some anointment oil and blood (probably mixed with ashes) from the altar and sprinkles the mixture over them. Finally Moses leaves his brother and nephews with a good supply of food, and strict instructions:
You must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day fulfilling the days of your filling; because it will fill up your power seven days. (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:33)
yedchem = your hand; your power
yemallei et yedchem = it/he will fill up your hand, fill up your power; it will invest you, inaugurate you, ordain you, install you.
And you must dwell at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven seven days; and you must guard what must be guarded of God, so you will not die; for so I was commanded. (Leviticus/Vayikra 8:35)
ushmartem et mishmeret = you must guard what must be guarded, you must keep safe what is for safekeeping. (A more common translation is “and you shall keep God’s charge”, but this overlooks the double use of words based on the root shamor = guard, protect.)
After all that oily, bloody, smoky ritual, why do Aaron and his sons have to sit by themselves at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting for seven days before their final confirmation?
Most commentary says they spend the time either learning all the rituals for the sanctuary, or meditating on the holiness of their new jobs, or mourning—because they have a premonition that at least one of them will die on the eighth day.
I suppose if Moses wrote down all the ritual laws he received from God, Aaron and his sons could spend seven days reading and quizzing each other until they’d memorized every detail. It’s one valid way to interpret the clause “and you must guard what must be guarded of God”. Sometimes getting all the technical details right is the most important thing.
But the Torah also quotes Moses as telling Aaron and his sons that they must not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting because “it will fill up your power seven days”. Maybe it takes seven days of dwelling in the entrance to God’s dwelling-place to fill up with sufficient holy awe so they have the power to conduct holy business.
What strikes me is that Aaron and his sons were neither born nor trained to be priests. They got their new positions without any previous job experience.
Up to this point, Aaron has not been the sort of man who wears a gold medallion on his forehead saying “Holy to God”. It’s clear in Exodus that God only contacts Aaron because Moses makes so many objections to the job God gives him at the burning bush. To his credit, Aaron greets his long-lost brother without jealousy, and willingly serves as Moses’ sidekick. When the Israelites are attacked by Amalek on the way to Mount Sinai, Aaron literally supports Moses’ arm and helps him save the day. But when Moses climbs Mount Sinai and does not return for 40 days, and the people freak out and ask for idols, Aaron makes the golden calf. Commentary from the first millennium says Aaron apologized and atoned for the calf, but that’s not in the Torah.
Now Aaron is promoted from Moses’ unreliable assistant to High Priest. Aaron will officiate over the ritual offerings in the sanctuary. Aaron will light the menorah. Aaron will be in charge of God’s dwelling place.
Aaron’s four sons are also getting major promotions. They have not done anything of distinction yet, though the two oldest, Nadav and Avihu, did get to climb halfway up Mount Sinai with the 70 elders and see a vision of God’s feet on a sapphire pavement. As members of the tribe of Levi, and as Moses’ nephews, all four would be treated with the respect accorded to elders. But now they are being ordained as priests. Besides Aaron and Moses, only the four of them will be allowed to enter the inner sanctum. Only they will be allowed to handle the holiest objects in the sanctuary. Only they will turn the offerings of their people into smoke that ascends to God.
For seven days they sit inside the sanctuary, in the entrance of the Tent of Meeting, gazing either out at the bronze altar and wash-basin in the courtyard, or in at the golden menorah, incense altar, and bread table, and the curtain screening off the ark itself. For seven days they sit there, without distractions, realizing they will spend the rest of their lives dedicated to holy service.
Are they also mourning? I doubt they had a premonition that one or more of them would die. (Aaron’s two oldest sons do die on the eighth day, in next week’s Torah portion, but it comes as a shock to everyone.) Early commentary compares these seven days to the seven-day mourning period of shiva, but “sitting shiva” is a later Jewish custom.
Nevertheless, I can imagine Aaron and his sons as not only awed and excited by their new roles, but also mourning for the old lives they are leaving behind. Before the seven days, they were respected elders among the Israelites; relatives of the great Moses, but still ordinary people. Moses was obviously different, but his brother and nephews were not set aside as holy. After the seven days, they will be set aside as holy. They will be the servants of God’s dwelling-place, who must act as God’s representatives every waking minute.
In a way, all five of them have just lost their lives. They need seven days of mourning before they take up new lives as priests.
I wish that everyone who faces a sudden big change in life were granted seven days to just sit at the entrance of the new life and dwell there, experiencing the grief, fear, awe, and whatever else comes along, letting the transformation sink in.
We don’t have a Moses to set aside seven days for us. But whenever we can, let’s do it ourselves. And whenever our lives change, may God fill up our power to meet the new challenge