The School holidays have begun, so, unfortunately, we will not be greeted by a melee of children when we go into the foyer for Kiddush. It’s also the Easter weekend, which means that many people – mostly, those with young families – have taken the opportunity to go away. Meanwhile, it’s Shabbat and the rhythm of Jewish life continues – and Jess and I are celebrating our tenth wedding anniversary. Poor Jess! If I wasn’t the rabbi, we could just be having a special Kiddush. As it is, it is also the last Shabbat of the month, which means, according to the schedule, that it’s the rabbi’s sermon time. So, what great strategy, have I come up with to combine the two? The rabbi’s wife is going to be giving a sermon as well! Now, that’s equality for you! I should add that we’ve split the sermon-time between us, so you’re not going to be subjected to a double-time offering… A word that is very appropriate, by the way, to the Book of Leviticus, which we began reading last week. So, without further ado, it gives me great pleasure to invite Jess to address us.
Thank you, Elli. It amazes me how no matter how unpromising the parashah might look at first glance, on reflection it always ends up having something to say to us and always seems to find a way to relate to the present.
At the moment I am working towards an exhibition in June on the theme of Mary and Miriam. I am currently making paintings using the traditional pattern in icon painting known as: Our Lady of the Sign. Here the burning bush of Moses is seen as a type for Mary or Miriam, the Jewish mother of the Jewish Jesus – I have to say it like that because everyone is always forgetting, especially in the Christian icon tradition that Jesus and Mary are Jewish….. Lets’ read the passage on which this idea is based. Moses is tending his flocks ‘behind the wilderness’… behind the wilderness? Where is that? Please ask Elli… I quote from Exodus chapter 3, verse 2:
A messenger of the Eternal appeared to him in blazing fire in the midst of the bush. He looked, and behold, the bush was burning with fire, but the bush was not consumed.
The bush is burning with fire but is not consumed. Furthermore, there is a messenger in the ‘blazing fire in the midst of the bush.’ What is going on here? Something to do with thinking of ways to imagine what the Divine Presence is like. It is like a fire which is self-generating. And this is why the burning bush becomes a type for Mary or Miriam, the mother of the 1st century rabbi. Mary is called Theotokos, God-bearer and like the bush, her body holds the fire of the Divine Presence in the form of the baby Jesus. As Jews, we may feel deeply uncomfortable with the idea of Mary containing the Eternal in the form of Jesus but if we can think of this more figuratively, we may yet find something more universal.
Let’s return to today’s parashah, Tzav, which also works with the theme of perpetual fire. I quote from Leviticus chapter 6, verses 5-6:
The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: morning after morning, the priest shall burn wood on it, and lay out the burnt offering on it…A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out.
Here, unlike the burning bush, where Moses merely had to witness the manifestation of the Divine in the fire and do nothing, our priests of old had to keep adding wood to the fire to ensure that it did not go out. There is something here for us about the nature of the Divine Presence and how we keep it burning in our world.
In the Book of Exodus, the Eternal is imagined as a pillar of fire and pillar of cloud, upon the tabernacle, the Tent of Meeting where humans encounter the Divine Presence. I quote from Chapter 40, verse 38:
For the cloud of the Eternal was upon the tabernacle by day, and there was fire within it by night, the sight of all the house of Israel, throughout all their journeys.
But in this week’s parashah, a new relationship is described. No longer is the Eternal represented as self-generating pillar of fire or a burning bush which the flames never consume available for Israel and Moses simply to witness in awe. In Leviticus, the fire is brought down to earth and generated by humans, not the Eternal. It resides in the ritual of the sacrifice and for this holy fire not to go out, humans must attend to it and bring wood to fuel it day and night. Maintaining the fire becomes work – avodah, ‘service’ instead of mere witness as it was before. The fire now is no longer a sign of the presence of the Eternal but a transformative crucible here on earth in our realm transporting portions of the people’s offerings up to the Eternal in their heavenly realm. Again, I quote from Leviticus 6 (:5):
The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: morning after morning, the priest shall burn wood on it, and lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being.
The fire becomes the medium term between wood and smoke. And smoke is of course something that rises up, ascends and disperses in the sky. Like the wind and clouds, also represented in our scriptures as figures for the Eternal, it is an airy medium between heaven and earth. We experience it but it has no substance. It lifts up what was once heavy material – the fat parts of the offering – and renders it ethereal.
So what is the development that has taken place here? In Exodus, the Eternal may have appeared as a pillar of fire or within a burning bush. We don’t have to do anything to keep the flames burning. But in our parashah today, the fire needs us to keep the divine economy going. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out…
And this brings me to my second and apposite theme. Relationship with the Eternal and with each other is all about tending it, and attending to it: working constantly to keep the fires burning, not to go out. All relationship needs this attentive upkeep but none more so than marriage perhaps! Elli and I got married in this synagogue ten years ago! For ten years we have each fetched the wood for our fire. We have never assumed that the love between us is merely a flame which burns all of its own accord and is never consumed. Our home is a little temple – a mikdash m’at, a small sanctuary, where the Talmud, says the Eternal dwells as the Sh’khinah as it did in the Tent of Meeting. Our home rituals at our table, the domestic altar, are our offerings to the Eternal and to each other. Today’s parashah reminds us that marriage and relationship is about work and effort and, like the priests of the Temple, this is a form of service: avodah. Indeed, like the title of our 1967 Liberal prayer book, it is avodat ha-lev, the service of the heart.
Thank you, Jess for your profound reflections on this week’s Torah portion, Tzav.
Now, given that like last week’s parashah, Va-yikra, the focus of Tzav is on the system of sacrificial worship in Temple times, you may be wondering what else is there left to say that might be relevant to our lives today? I also asked myself the same question after Jess had chosen her theme. But then, I looked at Tzav more closely, and noticed something that had not caught my attention before, which is at the heart of the fire that our portion insists should be kept burning.
Amongst the list of offerings presented on the altar with its ‘perpetual fire’, last week’s, parashah, Va-yikra, at Leviticus chapter 3, describes the ‘sacrifice of well-being’ – zevach sh’lamim – which could be brought from the sheep or from the goats. Tzav also speaks at Leviticus chapter 7 of the ‘sacrifice of well-being’, providing the additional information that it was offered as a way of expressing ‘thanks’ – todah, or a ‘vow’ – neder, or presented as a free-will offering – n’davah. Unlike a vow or a free-will offering, when the leftovers could be eaten on the following day, the zevach sh’lamim had to be eaten on the same day that it was offered and was so combined with unleavened bread – matzah – and with a supplement of leavened bread, added afterwards.
So, what’s special about thanksgiving? It is not entirely clear, but the distinctive feature of every sacrifice of well-being was that, unlike the other offerings, the zevach sh’lamim constituted a celebratory meal eaten by the person bringing the sacrifice together with their guests, after offering the prescribed portions on the altar and giving a share to the priests.
While the list of sacrifices may seem alien to our lives, the sacrifice of well-being is recognisable to us as a celebratory meal; the kind of meal we share together after a Shabbat or festival service; the kind of celebratory meal that accompanies important moments in our lives, like the birth of children, bar and bat mitzvah, and reaching other significant milestones, including marriage. Interestingly, all these life moments are associated with all three kinds of sacrifices of well-being as set out in the Torah. When a couple enter into marriage, for example, they make vows to one another, they offer themselves to one another of their own free-will, and they give thanks for the joy of love and the blessings of partnership.
Ten years ago today, on March 26, 2006 Jess and I stood together under the chuppah here in our synagogue, although not in this beautiful new building. Many of you who are here today were present on that occasion. Sadly, some people who were present that day are no longer alive. Ten years is a long-short period of time. So much can happen and has happened during the past ten years for all of us – in our own lives and in the life of our congregation, in the life of this country and in the wider world. Ten years ago, when Jess and I stood under our Shabbat table-cloth chuppah, the Civil Partnership Act had been in force for less than four months. Today lesbian and gay couples have gained the legal right to Civil Marriage on equal terms with heterosexual couples, and the struggle for LGBT+ equality has gone global.
For me and for Jess, individually, and for both of us together as a couple, today is a moment of thanksgiving for the wondrous gifts of our partnership and our marriage, for the hard-won gifts of liberation and equality – and for the myriad gifts of community, which is why we have chosen to celebrate our anniversary with you. We learn from the sacrifice of well-being described in the first two portions of the book of Leviticus that the blessings of life are to be shared.
Significantly, while the names for the other sacrifices set out in last week’s and today’s portion serve as descriptions of what they were – the olah, ‘burnt offering’, the minchah, ‘meal offering’, the chatat, ‘sin offering’ and the asham, ‘guilt offering’ – the name of the ‘sacrifice of well-being’ describes the impact of the offering: sh’lamim, ‘well-being.’ Most of us are familiar with the noun shalom, which is usually translated as ‘peace’. Based on the Hebrew root, Shin Lamed Mem, to be ‘complete’ or ‘sound’, shalom also means, completeness, soundness, wholeness; sh’lamim is the plural form of shalom.
The pursuit of shalom, wholeness, may constitute the core purpose of an individual’s life. We learn from the zevach sh’lamim, that the pursuit of wholeness is more complete when it is shared, hence the plural: sh’lamim. At the time that a couple get married, the hopes for their marriage are usually expressed in terms of joy and happiness. But anyone who is married or has been married, knows that marriage includes many different elements, and that joy and happiness are part of a complex mix, as the couple experience the ups and downs and challenges of life. What we all hope for our lives as individuals is that through our relationships with others – with our beloved, with our family and with our friends, with our neighbours and the members of our community – we develop a sense of wholeness, of completeness and well-being that serves as bedrock in the midst of the storms of life.So, how do we achieve this? In this week’s portion, the sacrifice of well-being is described as a t’rumah ladonai, ‘a gift to the Eternal’, echoing the very beginning of the narrative of the construction of the mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness, which speaks of each individual bringing their t’rumah, their gift for that great building project of their own free will. The noun t’rumah is based on the Hebrew root, Reish Vav Mem, to be ‘high’, ‘exalted’, ‘rise’. When we give thanks, when we make a vow, when we make an offering of our own free will, when we bring the gift of ourselves to others and participate in the life of the community, we express that part of ourselves that is capable of reaching above and beyond the circle of our personal preoccupations to connect our lives with the lives of others. To remind ourselves of the verse that inspired Jess’s reflections: ‘The fire on the altar should be kept burning.’ May the weekly oasis of nourishment and renewal that is Shabbat inspire each one of us continue to maintain that fire day after day with our sacrifices of well-being, for the sake of all our lives. And let us say: Amen.
Jess Wood Sarah MBE and Rabbi Elli Tikvah Sarah
Brighton and Hove Progressive Synagogue
Shabbat Tzav – 26th March 2016 – 16th Adar II 5776
- Babylonian Talmud, M’gillah 29a ↑
- Service of the Heart (Union of Liberal and Progressive Synagogues, London, 1967). The title of the prayer book, as indicated on the inside of the title page, was inspired by this commentary in the Babylonian Talmud, Ta’anit 2a: ‘“… To love the Eternal your God, and to serve him with all your heart with all your soul” (Deuteronomy 11:13). What is this service of the heart? You must say: It is prayer.’ ↑
- The whole of chapter Leviticus 3: verses1-17. ↑
- Leviticus 7:11-36. ↑
- The Civil Partnership Act came into force on 5 December 2005. The Marriage (Same Sex Couples) Act was passed on 17 July 2013. Liberal Judaism (www.liberaljudaism.org) was at the forefront of the campaign for Equal Marriage. ↑
- Lev. 7:14. ↑
- Parashat T’rumah, Exodus 25:2. ↑
- In the TaNaKh, the Hebrew Bible, a ‘high place’ or ‘height’, for example, is marom, and is usually a reference to God’s dwelling place. See for example, Micah 6:6: ‘With what shall I approach the Eternal One? How shall I worship God on high [marom].’ ↑