Holier Than Thou – Parshat Tzav 5778

You’ve heard the phrase, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.” I simultaneously love and hate this saying. I love it because we can come out of obstacles and challenges in life stronger and wiser. On the other hand, when you’re in the thick of the challenge itself, these words can often discourage more than they encourage. It’s not comforting in the midst of any challenging situation to hear someone tell you basically, “Don’t worry, there’s a reason for everything.” Reassurance is such a natural human tendency, but sometimes we just don’t want to be reassured. Sometimes we just need someone else to confirm that life can be a struggle and to let us learn the lesson ourselves.

This week we learn in Parshat Tzav that there is a reason behind how we grow through adversity. Parshat Tzav begins with the instructions for the priests in regard to various sacrifices. After discussing the need for the eternal flame, the text continues by teaching the prohibition against eating milk and meat together and then offers up a final review of the sanctification ceremony of the priests and their roles.

In the beginning of the text in chapter six, verse ten we read, “It shall not be baked with leaven; I have given it as their portion from My gifts; it is most holy, like the purification offering and the reparation offer.” I am struck by the notion of “most holy.” We’re talking about offerings to God here, and it would seem that an offering is an offering. In fact, sacrifice was meant to be the great equalizer, in that all offerings were accepted if given from the heart. So why the superlative? What does “most holy” mean?

According to a commentary in the Etz Hayim chumash, this is because a “greater degree of holiness is ascribed to the person who has struggled with sin and overcome it than to the person who has never been tempted.” In other words, those who have faced a challenge in life and stepped through it are “most holy.” Thus we have yet another way to look at adversity. In essence, Parshat Tzav is reminding us that we are holy from the start, but we become holier based on the lives we lead, the challenges we face, and the ways in which we rise to meet them.

Tempting – Parshat Tzav 5777


It doesn’t take much to convince me to take a taste of anything chocolate, even if I’ve made a promise to myself to eat healthier. The same goes for French fries and ice cream. Basically, anything that isn’t healthy for me, but is extremely delicious, leaves me powerless. Too often I end up caving to the craving.

Sadly, I got stuck in a spiral of poor eating choices years ago. This behavior left me with an unhealthy weight, clothes that didn’t fit, and a genuine fear of my genetic predisposition of diabetes. I had tasted the joy of giving in to temptation and then faced the consequences. That’s when I began a plan of attack at getting healthy. Over the course of two years, I lost 50 pounds and learned about moderation and exercise in the process.

As with so much in our lives, balance and moderation are key. The Torah is full of stories of leaning too far to one end of the spectrum or the other. What if Cain had tempered the anger and rage against his brother Abel? What if the Israelites exhibited patience and trust in the wilderness rather than building the golden calf? Of course you could argue that perhaps then we wouldn’t have these great moral lessons to teach.

This week we read Parshat Tzav, which reviews the instructions for the priests with regard to the various sacrifices. We learn about offerings of thanks, offerings of well-being, offerings of guilt, and offerings of free will. This is also the parshah in which we receive the commandment against mixing milk and meat and learn about the gifts that the priests receive from the well-being offerings made.

In chapter 6, verse 10 we learn about the purification offerings and the reparation offerings. They are specifically referred to as “most holy.” It is interesting that the offerings that are meant to remedy a mistake, to heal an overindulgence, or to make amends for a wrongdoing are considered the most holy. The commentary teaches that a greater degree of holiness is ascribed to the person who has struggled with sin and overcome it than to the person who has never been tempted.

Is an occasional sweet treat ok? By all means. Are mistakes allowed? Of course. We’re not perfect, we make mistakes, we cave to temptation, we misstep. As far back as the Torah we learn that temptation is not only natural, but expected. We are expected to slip because how we learn from the slip determines how we move forward.

From the Fire – Parshat Tzav 5776

From the Fire

In Rabbi Isaak’s speech at Congregation Neveh Shalom’s annual meeting last June, he joked that perhaps his title will remain “New Rabbi” and incoming senior rabbi, Rabbi Kosak, will become “Newer Rabbi.” The inside joke is that to some of our life-long members who were around when Rabbi Isaak was installed as senior rabbi, he remained the “new rabbi,” even after 22 years of service to our community. This is much more than light-hearted self-deprecation; it’s a testament to the beautiful relationship that this congregation has with its clergy. It is rare to see a congregation with two rabbi emeriti, and rarer still that the congregation would maintain such a love and respect for multiple rabbis across multiple decades.

To our modern sensibilities, it seems innate to obsess over the latest and greatest anything. However, our parshah this week is an eloquent reminder that part of what makes new things special is the history of what came before them. Parshat Tzav begins with a review of the instructions for the priests in regard to various types of sacrifices. The instructions detail things like what time of day the sacrifices are to be made and by whom they are to be consumed. The text continues with instructions on kosher eating and concludes with a review of how priests are sanctified in their role as leaders.

Early in the discussion of the day-to-day life of a priest, the Torah commands that the first act they do every morning is to put on ordinary clothes and remove the ashes of the previous night’s sacrifice. Literally, it’s a ceremony for cleaning the fireplace. I don’t know about you, but cleaning my fireplace hardly seems ceremonial. I love the role of charming chimney sweep Bert in Mary Poppins as much as anyone, but let’s be honest – that’s a very romanticized portrayal of a very dirty job. I have a gas-burning fireplace strictly so I can avoid this task altogether.

As high a title as the priests had, they were by no means spoiled. Their job as spiritual leaders of the people included housekeeping tasks. But the question remains, why was it so important that the leftover dirt from the previous day be treated with pomp and circumstance? The Torah answers with the notion that what was holy yesterday must still be treated with reverence today. That is to say that while the remains might be ashes now, not long ago they were a holy offering to God.

These words are a helpful reminder in the “new, newer, newest” world in which we live. It is to those who came before us, those upon whose shoulders we stand, that we owe our place in life and the freedoms we enjoy. I couldn’t be prouder to have a place among this incredible legacy of clergy at Neveh Shalom. This is a hallmark of Judaism: we stand on the work of our past and use that to inform and influence our future.


My Only Sunshine – Parshat Tzav 5775


As a newcomer to Portland, I was warned several times about the “gray days” and the feeling of gloom that accompanies them. I thought I was at an advantage going in because I do love the rain, and I was assured I’d still be able to go outside and walk nearly every day, even with the drizzle. While that has been mostly true, the usual lull that starts midwinter and precedes the spring is only made drearier by the frequently gray skies.

Interestingly, it is during this lull in the year that we read a section of Torah text that lacks in narrative drive and excitement. Sefer Vayikra, the third book of the Torah, is mostly filled with ritual sacrifices and laws pertaining to the priests. It can be difficult to relate to this book, as we no longer engage in sacrifices and the “high priest” no longer has this prominent role.

Parshat Tzav begins with the instructions for the priests with regard to the different sacrifices. After discussing the need for the eternal flame, the text continues by teaching the prohibition against eating milk and meat together and then offers up a final review of the sanctification ceremony of the priests and their roles.

In chapter 7, verse 37 of this parshah, we read the words “zot HaTorah.” Literally translated, this section of text tells us “this is the instruction,” specifically referring to the work of the priests and their obligations in the world. However, these words are more broadly interpreted by Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk to read, “this is the Torah.” The entire Torah can be summed up within the rules and laws of sacrifices.

Taking this understanding further, the Kotzker rebbe comments that each of the root words of the Hebrew offerings sheds light onto how these offerings are relevant today. “The Torah leads some people to olah (rising higher) and minchah (generosity), but leads other people to hattat and asham (feelings of guilt). The summary list concludes with shlamim, even as so many Jewish prayers, including the Amidah, the priestly benediction, and the Kaddish, conclude with shalom, peace, the ultimate blessing.”

The saying goes “March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb.” Presumably this helps us cope with the lull we might be feeling in between a gray winter and a vibrant spring. As we read parshat Tzav and this list of sacrifices, we are encouraged to find the ways in which Torah can lift us up even in the drearier times and offer opportunities for healing, generosity, and love. On gray days we have prayers for sun; on sunny days, we remember the beauty of the rain. This is the Torah, the mundane and the extraordinary.