A Taste of Torah: Weekly Commentary from the JTS Community
Parashat Tzav 5762
March 23, 2002 10 Nisan 5762
This week's commentary was written by Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz, Senior Rabbinic Fellow, JTS
The experience of the exodus from Egypt, Yeziat Mitzrayim, which we commemorate on Passover, is indelibly marked in the collective consciousness of the Jewish nation. It is this notion — of having been slaves to the Egyptians — that plays such a profound role in defining the moral and ethical demands that the Torah places on us. Having known the experience of oppression, we are commanded to take that to heart, lest we turn to oppress our fellow human beings. Thus, Passover is a time in which we dwell on the essence of what it is that defines us as a people: how does our experience of slavery shape the way we behave today? What does it mean to be a chosen people? And how is that we as a people deal alternately with powerlessness and power?
This latter question comes to the fore in our examination of Parashat Tzav. Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor HaCohen comments that while most of the sacrifices discussed in this week's parashah come from cattle and sheep, there is also one bird which is permitted as an offering upon the altar — a dove. Why a dove? Talmud Tractate Bava Kamma teaches, "Rabbi Abbahu said: Let a person always be one that is pursued rather than a pursuer, for there is no bird that is pursued more than a dove and it is this bird which the Torah permits as an offering upon the altar. Rabbi Shmuel Avigdor HaCohen continues, "Scripture states that 'God desires the one who is pursued' (Ecclesiastes 3:15). Birds of prey cannot achieve the level of holiness required for a sacrificial offering. Only the bird that is pursued, the dove, is desired as an offering. God despises the pursuer and desires the pursued. It is therefore forbidden to bring a sacrifice — to come close to God — by means of an animal of prey, i.e. one that pursues that which is weaker than it." The message rooted in the experience of the Exodus is clear — do not prey on those weaker than you. As Israelites, we are to act with a keen sense of justice — only this will bring us closer to God.
Renowned artist David Moss, in his extraordinary haggadah, depicts a chilling image toward the beginning of his haggadah. Taking his cue from illustrations of a rabbit hunt at the beginning of medieval European haggadot, Moss illustrates the emblems of nations that have persecuted Jews throughout the ages and notes that many of them took the eagle as their symbol. Moss illustrates the seemingly invincible eagle in each national emblem with a rabbit (the symbol of the pursued) in the beak or talons of the preying eagle. Both Parashat Tzav and David Moss give us pause to think about our role as the pursued as well as the pursuer. Having lived for some two thousand years in a state of powerlessness, the Jewish people are blessed with a country of our own and today, we are indeed in a state of power. This Passover, may we, seated around our precious Passover tables, challenge ourselves to think about the responsibility of power — and how our experience of powerlessness informs this special task. And may our sincere inquiry bring us closer to each other, and as a dove, bring us closer to God.
Rabbi Matthew Berkowitz