It Takes All Kinds – Parshat Tzav 5780


I know this might come as a surprise because I’m a rabbi, but I actually don’t find much personal spiritual fulfillment in daily prayer services. Occasionally, if the mood is right, the melody particularly poignant, and my mind just open enough, I might have a transcendental moment in prayer, but most of the time, my spirituality is found on a walk with my family in the sunshine or a long drive through our beautiful Oregon landscape. Mostly I find my connection to God in nature and in my family moments. I can feel that connection during shul too, perhaps just not as much as you might expect.

I’m guessing I might not be alone when it comes to how I approach spiritual fulfillment. Parshat Tzav, the Torah portion we read this week, tackles this question in an eloquent way. The parshah begins with a review of the instructions for the priests with regard to various types of sacrifices. The instructions detail what time of day they are to be made, what they are to wear, and who they are to be consumed by. The text continues with instructions on kosher eating and concludes with a review of how priests are sanctified in their roles as leaders.

The beginning of the text teaches us, “Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering.” The Hebrew word used for ritual is “torat,” and the Talmud interprets this word as “Torah for,” meaning that in our day, the study of Torah takes the place of bringing animal offerings. Further, the Hatam Sofer asks, if this is the case, why is Aaron commanded? He answers that it’s because Aaron might be reluctant to tell the people that the study of Torah is equivalent to bringing sacrifices. It would cause confusion, presenting the people with an alternative form of worship. And maybe Aaron himself was afraid of presenting an alternative because it would weaken the priestly role in ritual.

I take the opposite view. As a rabbi, I encourage you to find your alternative way of connecting spiritually and with God. It’s very likely not every Israelite connected to God through sacrifice, and today not every congregant connects through prayer. While I would love to see you in the pews enjoying community and time together, I’d also love to go on a walk with you, taking in nature together and hearing about the unique way you yourself find God. 

The entire book of Vayikra is about the way in which our actions can connect us to God. Parshat Tzav encourages us to find that connection, and then actually use it. 

Preparing for Change – Parshat Tzav 5779


I’m fascinated by the ways in which we prepare for major events in our lives. Some events have a prescribed preparation activity, like a doctor preparing for surgery with the rituals of sterilization or a bar mitzvah working to learn each part of leading a service. Some preparations take years, like going to school for certain careers. Some preparation, like we do on Passover, requires physical labor, cleaning and cooking, or other moving and preparing. And some are spiritual, like going to the mikvah before getting married or to mark another major milestone transition. It’s not just the preparation that helps us through life, but the way that we prepare for life’s events can help us better grasp their importance or impact on our daily lives.

The Torah also shows us a variety of methods of preparation for life events. This week’s portion, Parshat Tzav, contains one such example. The parshah begins with a review of the instructions for the priests regarding various types of sacrifices. The instructions detail what time of day they are to be made, what they are to wear, and who they are to be consumed by. The text continues with instructions on kosher eating and concludes with a review of how priests are sanctified in their roles as leaders.

At the end of the portion, Aaron’s sons are getting ready to undergo the process of ordination. The work involves anointing oil, altar blood, special clothing, and then a seven-day period when they are not to go outside the tent of meeting. The preparation to become anointed as a priest takes seven days, and is meant to mimic the seven days of creation. It’s also considered a “perfect” number in Judaism, as it equals the number of our forefathers and mothers as well as the colors in the rainbow of the covenant. That’s the heft and significance given to this transformation from civilian to priest; it’s as powerful a symbol as these other markers.

We’re often told just to adapt and roll with the changes. Reading this section of Torah reminds us that it’s ok to treat big transitions with all the pomp and preparation they need. That’s how we acknowledge the change.

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.