Today’s parashah, Tzav is a continuation of last week’s reading about the sacrificial offerings of the Mishkan; it concludes with the laws of how the Cohanim are to be installed. Tzav also contains the middle verse of the Torah: Leviticus 8:7. Today is also Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Sabbath which is the special name given to the last Shabbat before Passover.
There are a number of reasons for this unique title. The Midrash explains that Shabbat HaGadol commemorates the moment of self-liberation which occurred a few days before the actual Exodus. The Hebrews, in defiance of the Egyptians, took a sheep, a sacred animal to the Egyptians, and publicly brought it into their houses in preparation for slaughtering it to mark their doorposts to have the 10th plague pass over their homes. This brave, great act was the first step towards the people being born as a great nation. The special Haftorah reading chosen by the rabbis for this special Shabbat concludes with the words: “Behold I am sending you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of G-d. And he will turn the hearts of parents to their children and the hearts of children to their parents…” Others explain the derivation of the name The Great Shabbat as referring to the length of the services on this day. Up until the last century, the traditional custom was for rabbis to only present a Drash on this Shabbat and the Shabbat before Yom Kippur; Shabbat Shavuah. The Shabbat Shuvah drash was about the methodology and importance of Teshuvah, spiritual return and re-birth. The sermon on Shabbat HaGadol was about the methodology and importance of readying oneself for Passover, kashering ones house, and preparing for the Seder.
5 out of 7 years, Shabbat HaGadol falls on Parshat Tzav. (The other two times, by the way, we read Acharie Mot about the ancient sacrificial service for Yom Kippur). My question, as I prepared for this Dvar Torah, is what might the connections be? What lessons about Passover can we find in this week’s Torah reading? While some would say that the conjuction of Parshat Tzav and Shabbat HaGadaol is mere coincidence, the accidental meeting of the annual Torah reading cycle and the calendar of holidays, others would say that there is no such thing as coincidences. Either way, I opened up Tzav on a search, not for chametz, but for Passover insights. And I found quite a few.
First of all, I found chametz, and matzah! Vayikra 6:9-10 reads: “Aaron and his descendants will eat the rest of the offering. It must be eaten as matzah, unleavened bread in a holy place. They must eat it in the Ohel Moed. It will be not be baked as chameitz…”
A few verses further we have a basic handbook about how to make a pot kosher, for Passover or otherwise: 6:21 reads: “Any clay pot in which blood is cooked must be broken; however if it is cooked in a copper pot, it may be purged in boiling water and rinsed with water.”
The very name of this portion, Tzav, which is the command form of the word commandment, mitzvah, may serve as a reminder that Passover, the holiday that commemorates our people’s birth as a nation, is the most observed mitzvah. Almost 70% of all Jews in this country, including the many who identify themselves as cultural or secular Jews, have a seder. There is something compelling about this particular ritual when we gather to tell the story of our tribe. Way more than the numbers of Jews who fast on Yom Kippur or light Chanukah candles, Passover is our most popular response to the tradition which says: “Tzav!”, “Command them!” regarding our divine obligations.
The bulk of this Torah portion, and the book of Vayikra in general, is a handbook for the priests. This is reflected in the earliest name of this sefer, Torat Cohanim which is why it is called Levitcus in Greek. It is easy to read the instructions about korbanot, or the detailed rules of being Tammei and Tahor, and label all of this as irrelevant. Not only does it describe rituals that have not been practiced for 2,000 years since the destruction of the Beit HaMikdash, but the vast majority of us are not Cohanim and this is not our specific family heritage.
But Passover includes a unique obligation that makes these texts more relevant. Every other holiday, in fact every other day of the year, the people brought an offering to the Temple, and the priests offered them and consumed them. On Passover, everyone made their own offering, a sheep, and made their own house into a holy place. The Passover offering was eaten by the ordinary family, not by the priests. If the family was too small to finish an entire sheep, an ancient equivalent of a block party occurred with neighboring families joining together to eat the holiday offering.
On Passover, all of Israel acted as priests, and we still do this today. We gather around a table with a seder plate as the centerpiece and place a burnt shankbone on it. There is no other moment in the year that makes it more clear that our table is like an altar and those leading and participating in the Seder are like Cohanim.
As the Seder developed in time it was understood that every Seder leader becomes part Rabbi and part Priest; the seder is filled with questions, discussions, rabbinical teachings and Midrashim, and the table is set with priestly ritual objects: a burnt sacrificial egg, unleavened bread, and a roasted animal bone. The rest of the year the book of Vayikra may be the manuel for the priests; on Passover we all become priests and the instructions in this morning’s Torah reading become our personal instructions.
A verse in this week’s portion, Vayikra 8:23 reads: “Moses slaughtered the ram of priestly installation and took some of its blood and placed it on Aaron’s right ear lobes, right thumb, and on his right big toe”. It’s a strange line that produces many questions, and it becomes an even more intriguing line when we hear it chanted. The first word, Vayishchat – “and he slaughtered” is chanted as three long Pazeir trop notes. This is the Shalshelet, the triple chain trop note, the longest cantillation note and one of the rarest. It only appears 4 times in the entire Torah and this is the last of the four.
The first time it appears is Genesis 19:16 when Lot hesitated “Vayitmama” when leaving Sodom. The second Shalshelet is when Eliezer paused before selecting a bride for Isaac. The third is the very complex story of Mrs.Potiphar tempting Joseph to have an affair with her. “Vayema’en” – “He refused” which the Midrash explains was a refusal only after being greatly interested in being intimate with her and only seeing a vision of his father’s face in the window stopped him. From these first three examples of this longest, pausing note, we can see a potential pattern of the Shalshelet representing a pause, a hesitation, a stopping.
But why would Moses hesitate-pause here? Was he hesitant to make Aaron the first High Priest instead of himself? Or was he overwhelmed by the significance of the moment. Much like the Vice President’s comments to President Obama this week before signing the health care bill and remarking what a big _____ deal it was, it’s easy to understand Moses realizing the enormity of the moment. The people of Israel had just built the Mishkan, the ultimate community building exercise with hundreds of thousands of people working together on a common goal, completing the work with a spirit of generosity and creativity with more items donated than were even needed and then G-d’s spirit filled the Miskhan. With this offering, with this fulfillment of the Millu’im installation ritual, the Mishkan was fully consecrated, and the maintaining of the rituals and the relationship between the people and the divine would now be in the hands of Aaron and his descendants.
It is too easy to move through life, including significant moments, and life cycle celebrations, without pausing and noticing the power of the moment. This Shalshelet note perhaps comes to teach us, to remind us, to take those moments of being present. To say or feel “Hinini Muchan U’mizuman” – “Behold, I am ready and I am prepared”. To take this pause before the rituals and blessings we do. Every brachah we recite, every Amidah we meditate, every time we pause and notice our breath rising and falling, every moment that we pay attention to our life force flowing through us, we are experiencing the possible teaching of the Shalshelet.
Shabbat HaGadol is the great day of rest, a rest in the middle of the cleaning, searching, shopping, koshering, cooking, organizing before Passover.
The seder itself presents many opportunities to pause and be present: the blessing on the various ritual foods, the four cups of wine, the 15 steps of the ordered meal, the shehechiyanu that is recited multiple times. In fact, the entire Maggid story telling section of the seder is a pause before the meal; a chance to feed our soul before our stomach. We break bread, but hesitate to eat it until we recite the Haggaddah.
The entire Pesach holiday is a week long pause at this season of new birth and re-birth. We move into this new annual holiday cycle starting with Nissan, the first of the months, with a pause, a celebration of our history, a re-living of it in the present, and with a hope for the future.
The second half of the verse does not have rare fancy trope, but it does contain a very provocative and mysterious concept. Aaron’s ear, thumb and toe are consecrated. This both represents his totality, his head to toe, his circumference, and these particular organs may contain a deep lesson for us and an insight into Passover as well.
The ear represents hearing words of instruction. Ibn Ezra comments on this verse of Torah: “the ear symbolizes that one must attend to what has been commanded.” The hand, which is all about the opposable thumb, is the symbol of action, or in Ibn Ezra’swords: “the origin of all activity.” Philo, the 1st Century Egyptian Jewish thinker, wrote about this phrase from the parashah: “The fully consecrated must be pure in words and actions and in life; for words are judged by hearing, the hand is symbol of action, and the foot of the pilgrimage of life.”
Pesach is the holiday of telling and hearing our story. The name of the holiday is interpreted as not only meaning Passover and the special Paschal offering of the day, but also as Peh Sach – the mouth explains. This is a holiday where our ears, our connections to each other and our shared heritage, become front and center. It is also a holiday of action, of cleaning, of searching our homes and hearts, of making the seder, of becoming more free, of pledging that all who are hungry and needy in the world should have food and their needs met. It’s a holiday of movement – we left Egypt, we went on Pilgrimage to the Temple, we move into the future with hopes for an even greater liberation.
The ears hear the commandments, Tzav!, the hands fulfill these instructions, our feet guide us through the Halachah, a way, the walking, our sacred path.
Our ears hear about our past, our hands are busy with the present, our feet lead us into the unknown future. God is what was, is, and will be. Passover is a sacred experince of timelessness: we say that we are present tense leaving Egypt and it’s 3,500 years ago, we also read that this year we are here, and conclude with the hope that next year may we all be free in a completed world and a peaceful rebuilt Jerusalem. We re-live and listen to our past, we embrace the present moment and stretch out our hands towards others, and we walk into the future.
And the next verse of the text from this morning’s Torah reading tells us that after Moshe’s Shalshelet filled sacrifice and the placing of the blood on the organs of hearing, doing, and movement, he then placed the blood on Aaron’s children, on their ears, thumbs, and toes. We consecrate ourselves and then we consecrate the next generation. We pass it on. We do for ourselves and then we do for our children so they can one day do for their descendants. Vishantam Livanecha – repeat these words for your children.
Tzav may just happen to be the Torah portion that we usually read on this great Shabbat before Passover. Or it may be the exact message that we need at this moment. Be present. Be in a place of action: hearing, doing, moving. And pass this heritage, this ritual, this Passover on to our children. May we all have a kosher, meaningful and liberating Passover. Shabbat Shalom!