The First, Not the Last – Parshat Tzav 5782

On this Shabbat 100 years ago, a young woman named Judith Kaplan celebrated the first public bat mitzvah in an American congregation. It was March 18, 1922. Judith was the daughter of Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, and Judith herself went on to become a talented composer and renowned musicologist. 

Marking this anniversary, I can’t help thinking of my bat mitzvah, which, in its own small way, was a break from the norm at my synagogue. I was the first girl in my congregation to lay tefillin, and I fought to lead so many parts of the service that were considered inappropriate for women to lead in Conservative Judaism at that time. Yes, we’ve come a long way, and it’s important to acknowledge where we came from and to whom credit is due.

This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tzav, begins with a review of the instructions for the priests with regard to various types of sacrifices. The instructions detail things like what the priests will wear, what time of day the sacrifices are to be made, and who should consume them. The text continues with instructions on kosher eating and concludes with a review of how priests are sanctified in their roles as leaders.

Toward the beginning of this week’s reading, we come to the commandments concerning who can eat of specific sacrifices. The Torah is clear in Leviticus chapter 6, verse 11 that only the males of Aaron’s descendants may eat of it because of their status as God’s holy ones. Since the beginning of Jewish law, this simple statement has been the reason women have been prohibited from taking leadership roles in the Jewish community. Why? Many explanations suggest that it was thought that men could understand the laws more clearly. Although when you consider how much of Judaism was guided, taught, and passed down by women and mothers, this argument is fundamentally flawed if not outright misogynistic.

Other explanations lean on women’s supposed lack of purity or focus, and we now know those arguments fail for their own reasons. So without any rational explanation for the practice of excluding women, the Conservative Movement eventually started ordaining women as rabbis. There was no longer a reason not to. (Of course there never was, but they didn’t realize that until later.) 

All humans are created in the image of the divine, and characteristics like gender and race don’t decide one’s leadership potential. And we should remember that having women leaders is about much more than proving a certain level of competence to men. It’s about showing other women what’s possible. 

Fourteen months ago, when Kamala Harris was sworn in as the first female, BIPOC vice president of the United States, regardless of your political leanings or the color of your state, this moment held immense significance. She was not the first woman to run for this office, but she was the first to take the vice presidential oath of office. Across the nation there were tears of triumph and joy at this further confirmation of what women senators, governors, Supreme Court justices, and presidents of other countries have been proving for decades.

Thank you to Judith Kaplan and women like Regina Jonas, Sally Priesand, and countless others who came before me, so that I could stand before you. 

The Feedback Sandwich – Parshat Tzav 5781

Why is it always easier to jump to the negative and harder to keep focused on the positive? In my rabbinical school pastoral counseling class, we had many conversations about what is referred to as the “feedback sandwich.” You share something nice (the bread part), then give the troublesome news (the meat part), and then add the second piece of bread with something kind again. It can make it easier to share something difficult, but I tend to be more direct. As someone who always wants to just say what she means, the feedback sandwich can trip me up. For example, what if there simply is no bright side? Rom-coms have spoiled us with impossibly happy endings, but we know that isn’t really how life always works. 

The Torah struggles with this notion as well. In fact, when reading Torah, there are rules about how you can end an aliyah, and the section of verses can’t end in the middle of something terrible happening. Why? Perhaps it is because when we are left in that dark space, our minds wander in the negativity and imagine the worst possible outcomes . . . even when we already know how the story goes!

Our Torah portion this week, Tzav, exhibits this for us. 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.

The end of the parshah foreshadows what will happen next. It warns that if you don’t follow the rules, you will die. And in the very next section of text, Aaron’s sons break the rules, make their own rules, and end up paying with their lives. But the verses just prior to that moment seem to soften the blow by explaining “And Aaron and his sons did all the things that the Lord had commanded through Moses.” 

People are seldom purely good or purely evil. The same people who are kind or humble or philanthropic can also make mistakes, though some of those mistakes may have more dire consequences than others. The feedback sandwich isn’t just a way of sharing bad news or adding variety to a narrative. It’s also a reminder that individual actions don’t have to define us; rather, we are the sum of everything we do.

It Takes All Kinds – Parshat Tzav 5780

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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

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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.