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Torah Commentary
Tzav (March 31, 2012)

Saul Kaiserman,
Director of
Lifelong Learning

IN THIS WEEK’S Torah portion, Tzav, we are confronted with the gory image of the slaughter of animals and the dashing of their blood on the altar, and challenged theologically by the idea of God delighting in the “pleasing odor” of the burnt offering. To many contemporary readers of the book of Leviticus, the entire notion of sacrificial worship is discomforting. But to find a critique of the institution of Temple sacrifice, we need look no further than the Haftarah reading that accompanies this portion, from the book of Jeremiah.

From the first words in this text, Jeremiah challenges the words we have just read in the Torah. He challenges the notion that sacrificial worship was commanded at Sinai (Jeremiah 7:22), in direct contradiction with the text of this week’s portion (Leviticus 7:37-38)! Over the centuries, commentators have attempted to reconcile this disagreement, but in the ancient decision to juxtapose these texts as Torah and Haftarah, we see evidence that opposition to sacrifice has long been a mainstream perspective.

Jeremiah’s critique is not ultimately against sacrifice itself, however. Rather, he seeks to admonish those who offer sacrifices insincerely. His concerns echo those of the prophet Hosea, who declared that God desires “compassion, not sacrifice.” (Hosea 6:6) In the concluding words of the Haftarah portion, quoted above, Jeremiah chastises those who seek personal glory rather than obedience to God’s will.

Abraham Joshua Heschel, commenting on this passage, writes:
Why and for what purpose was Abraham chosen to become a great and mighty nation, and to be a blessing to all the nations of the earth? Not because he knew how to build pyramids, altars and temples, but “in order that he may charge his children and his household after him to keep the way of the Lord by doing righteousness and justice.” (Genesis 18:18-19) Righteousness is foremost among the things God asks of man.”
(The Prophets, p. 210)

Jeremiah is not opposed to the pursuit of wisdom, strength or wealth, and neither should we be. Jeremiah tells us, if you must be driven by ego, then take pride in how you emulate God in your behavior. Don’t simply attain wisdom for its own sake, he says. Use your wisdom to bring about kindness. Use your strength in the pursuit of justice. And with your wealth, seek equity.

A biblical-era Israelite might offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving without gratitude or a repentance offering without remorse, missing the transformative potential of the moment at the Temple. We, too, must look to our talents and achievements, not merely as a source of pride, but as the means by which we achieve our human potential for compassion and righteousness.

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