A Beacon for the Years that Lie Ahead

Tzav | Tishah Be'av By :  Ismar Schorsch Rabbi Herman Abramovitz Distinguished Service Professor of Jewish History and Chancellor Emeritus Posted On Mar 30, 1996 / 5756 | Main Commentary | Holidays

The Talmud tells that at the destruction of the First Temple by the Babylonians in the year 586 B.C.E., the following poignant scene unfolded: “Many clusters of young priests ascended to the roof of the sanctuary with its keys in their hands and said: Lord of the Universe, since we lacked the merit to be trustworthy caretakers, let these keys be returned to Your possession.’ They threw them in the air and half-a-hand, so it appeared, stretched forth to take them in. The young priests then jumped directly into the flames.

The pathos of this tale evokes for us the trauma of the event. Destroyed was the sacred space in which God’s majesty could be felt more intensely than anywhere else. The young priests, bereft of a future, gently assumed responsibility for the sacrilege of their elders. God was not at fault nor diminished. As the fire consumed the holy edifice, God withdrew, ready to return to a new place of unblemished sanctity. Symbolic language delicately preserved the mystery of monotheism.

We need not long for the restoration of the Temple to be stirred by the stones of the Western Wall or the grandeur of the Temple mount. We can recall and admire without feeling impelled to replicate. To acknowledge the power of our ancestors’ mode of worship doesn’t curb the autonomy of our own religious sensibilities. Above all, we are humbled by the antiquity of the place as much as by the blood shed in its defense.

The ground for this reverence was preserved in Jewish memory by the ingenuity of rabbinic Judaism. I speak of structures deeper than the periodic fast days commemorating the destruction embedded in the calendar. Even as the Rabbis replaced the Temple with the synagogue, they were eager to remind us of the void created by the end of the sacrificial system. They substituted the artifice of words for the architecture and cult of the Temple, giving shape to a virtual reality.

A fascinating midrash on our parasha will illustrate the process at work. Its author daringly equates the reading of the laws about the burnt offering (“ola” in Hebrew, “offering-up” in Fox) with the actual doing of the sacrifice. JPS renders the verse on which the midrash is made as follows: “The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Command “Tzav,” – the name of our parasha) Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering…(Leviticus 6:2).” I cite as well the translation by Everett Fox, because it illumines the subtlety of the midrash: “YHWH spoke to Moshe, saying: Command Aharon and his sons, saying: This is the Instruction for the offering-up…” What JPS translates as “ritual,” Fox renders as “Instruction for the offering-up” in order to convey the full force of the two words in the Hebrew original:torat ha-ola.

The midrash separates the two words (despite their linkage as a genitive phrase) into two different acts. The presence of the highly resonant word “torat” suggests that Moses is asking of Aaron and his sons to recite the scriptural passage about the burnt offering even as they offer it on the altar. Implicit in the duality, according to the midrash, is the conviction that although one day the Temple will no longer stand, if Jews persist in reading and studying the relevant texts of the Torah, God will accept their cerebral effort in place of the cultic one.

The experience of the exilic prophet Ezekiel is brought by the midrash to reinforce its claim. God orders him, “[Now] you, O mortal, describe the Temple to the House of Israel, and let them measure its design (Ezekiel 43:10).” But the midrash has Ezekiel protest. His community of exiles in Babylonia will only be depressed by having to imagine the glory of a rebuilt Temple in Jerusalem. “Let them be,” Ezekiel says, “until they return from exile. Then I will describe it for them.” But God will not be deterred. “Just because My children find themselves in exile, the building of My house should be abandoned? And God went on: reading about the construction in the Torah is the equivalent of building the Temple. Tell them that if they busy themselves in the study of the plans for the Temple, I will deem it as if they were actually engaged in its erection.”

Moreover, the midrash insists, this is the reason why the educational curriculum for our children begins with the study of Leviticus. To enter the Temple to offer a sacrifice, one must be free of all impurity, just like children. Since they have not as yet known sin, “let these pure souls busy themselves with the study of acts of purity,” God says, “and I will regard it as if they were offering sacrifices before Me.” The midrash concludes: “Despite the fact that the Temple has been destroyed and no one brings sacrifices any longer, if children study the system of sacrifices the world will survive.”

This remarkable midrash gives us a deep insight into the mindset of rabbinic Judaism. A slight textual anomaly (torat ha-ola) becomes the pretext for developing one major response to the religious vacuum left by the final destruction of the Temple in the year 70 C.E. Memory was mobilized to create a virtual reality. Words could be made to conjure up the images and emotions, the rights and experiences associated with a vanished form of worship. Is this not how we comfort ourselves when severed from someone we love? Judaism made a ritual of cultivating memory. Because the Temple lies in ruins is no reason to stop reading va-yikra. Words can be made a surrogate for being.

Let me cite just a few examples of this pervasive pattern. Traditionally the daily morning service opened with the recitation of a selection of brief passages from the Torah recalling the Tabernacle and its cult. Musaf services on Yom Kippur still bring to mind liturgically the drama and dread of the Temple ritual on the Day of Atonement. For me, these prayers are not about the future, but the past. To ponder them is not to yearn for restoration, but to understand who we are and how we came to be.

Similarly, the Talmud asserts baldly that when we recite on Friday evenings the final verses of the creation story (Genesis 2:1-4, beginning with the word va-yekhulu) we are transformed into God’s partners in the creative process. To underscore that conviction, we in fact intone these verses three times (during the amida, after it and before kiddush). God brought the world into being through the articulation of words and we sustain it by resting. Language makes us soulmates of God, changing the space we inhabit through the power of words.

And finally, the key to the sacred theater of the Seder is giving voice to words. We are asked to imagine ourselves as part of that generation which witnessed God’s presence in the birth of a new nation driven by a sense of mission. Telling the story bridges the chasm opened by time, transporting us back into the midst of that foundational experience. Memory makes of the past a beacon for the years that lie ahead. Words are the garment of our soul.

The publication and distribution of Dr. Schorsch’s commentary on Parashat Tzav are made possible by a generous grant from Rita Dee and Harold (z”l) Hassenfeld.