Thursday, March 21, 2013

A Thought on the Parsha


The beginning of parashat Tzav seems like almost an exact repeat of the beginning of parashat Vayikra.  Each parasha deals with the details and rituals of the different korbanot, and Tzav winds up seeming like merely a repeat of Vayikra. However, closer examination shows that while they deal with the same topics, they approach them from different perspectives.  Vayikra begins:
"Speak to the Children of Israel and say to them: If a person from among you offers a sacrifice to God..."  (Vayikra 1:2)
Tzav, however, begins as follows:
"Command Aharon and his sons saying: This is the law of the olah..."  (Vayikra 6:2)
While Vayikra is addressed to the Children of Israel, to the person who is bringing the sacrifice, Tzav is addressed to the children of Aharon, the Kohanim who are offering the sacrifices.  This different perspective explains why the two parshiyot are not redundant.   There are, by necessity, different directions to those who bring the sacrifices than to those who offer the sacrifices.  Thus, each audience is given their own set of directions.
When we look closely at the two parshiyot in an attempt to identify these differences, a number of things stand out.  First, the order is different.  In Vayikra the order of sacrifices is: olah (burnt offering), mincha (flour offering), shlamim (peace offering), chatat (sin offering), asham (guilt offering).   In Tzav, in contrast, the order is: olah, mincha, chatat, asham, shlamim.  The explanation for the different orders is now obvious:  what is most significant depends on whom is being addressed.
In Vayikra we are dealing with the owner's perspective, the first list.  From this perspective, what matters most is what korban they are most likely to give and most interested in giving.  Now, the owner's primary motivation for bringing a korban is, as we discussed last week, to give something meaningful to God.  This is first an olah, a freely offered animal, and then amincha, a freely offered flour offering.   The olah was more significant, because animals cost more, owners probably had a more personal connection to their animals than to their grain, and perhaps most significantly because animals could serve to represent the very life of the owner, whereas a mincha only represented their food or their property.  Also, an olah was fully consumed on the altar, which is  symbolically given to God, whereas most of the mincha was eaten by the Kohanim, representatives of God, certainly, but still only representatives.
Next on the Vayikra list is the shlamim (peace or wellbeing offering). This was also freely given, but less of a full gift to God. The shelamim was shared between God and the owners.  The blood was put on the altar and the entrails were burnt, but the meat was eaten by the owners (with a portion given to the Kohanim).  While everyone gets something, it is lower on the list, either reflecting the owners' hierarchy of what he or she normally is most interested in giving, or the Torah's hierarchy of what he or she should prioritize in his giving.  Better to give a full gift than a shared gift.   Last on the list, of course, are the sin offerings.  Clearly, the owner would rather not be in those circumstances that obligate him or her to bring these offerings.
The list in Tzav, however, reflects the concerns of the Kohanim.  Olah and mincha still appear at the top, since those are the primary form of sacrifices.  Let us also remember that the altar is called the mizbach ha'olah, the altar of the burnt offering.  (see Shemot 30:28., 31:9; 35:16; 38:1; 40:6, 10, 29; and throughout Vayikra 4).   However, once we move beyond these two, the order changes.  The Kohanim's primary interest is their portion in the sacrifices.  The top of this list is the chatat and asham, where they get to eat the entire animal, and only finally the shelamim, where the owner eats the entire animal and they only get a small portion.
The difference in the order of the two lists is just one of the differences between the two parshiyot, and a close reading of the two side-by-side will reveal other differences in emphasis and detail reflecting these two perspectives.   For example:
  • Tzav's discussion of the olah is very brief (6:1-6), without an enumeration of all the possible different animals.  What type of animals can (as opposed to must) be brought is of interest to and the choice of the owner, and not a significant concern of the Kohen.
  • Tzav discusses (6:1-6) all the work that the Kohanim have to do at night and in the early morning to finish the work of the olah, to keep the fire burning, and to prepare the altar for the next morning.  All of this - the cleanup and the preparation, as it were - is invisible to the owners and not mentioned in Vayikra.
  • There is no discussion of the different types of mincha in Tzav (6:7-11) in contrast to Vayikra because, again, this choice is not of interest to the Kohanim.
  • There is, however, a discussion of the minchas of Kohanim in Tzav (6:12-16), which is not present in Vayikra, because this is the exclusive interest of the Kohanim.
  • There is no discussion of the circumstances that obligate a chatat (6:17-23), in contrast to the long exposition in Vayikra.  There is, however, detailed discussion of ritual issues that can arise in the cooking of the chatat and the dealing with its blood - again, issues which are of concern almost exclusively to the Kohanim.
  • In  Tzav there is significant focus on who gets which parts of the korban to eat or to take home - again, a major concern for the Kohanim.  This is barely treated at all in Vayikra.
The primary lesson to draw from all of this is that when we are speaking to an audience - be it giving a lecture, teaching a class, or speaking to our children - the perspective of the listener is key.  What is important to us may be irrelevant to them.  This was a lesson that took time for me to learn as a teacher.   I remember when I was once giving a lunch-and-learn parasha class on the parasha of Bamidbar.  I spent a good 10 minutes discussing the different terms used for describing the directions of the compass in the Torah.  Then, in the middle of one of my “erudite” comments, a student interrupted me and said, "Rabbi, what does this have to do with my life?"   It is that question, or its appropriate variation, which I strive to address whenever I am teaching: "Rabbi, what do I care about this material that you are presenting me?"
The first goal in education, then, is to get the students to care.  Even though the Kohanim had no meat from the olah, the Torah is telling them: this is what you must care about first and foremost.  But good teaching is not only getting them to care, but about finding out what a student or child does care about and finding ways to connect to it.  We might have to tell over an entire parasha in a different way if we are addressing one type of class as opposed to another, or one child rather than the other. 
Isn’t this, in fact, the message of the four children of the seder night.  The Sages draw our attention to the fact that not all children are the same and that we must tailor our answers and our words according to their interests, needs, and abilities.  But this only comes with paying attention.  If we listen closely to what they are asking, and how they are asking it, we will realize that questions that might sound identical, are really radically different.  And it is so often what lies beneath the question – the unasked question – which is what really matters.
When educating our children, when teaching or leading others, we must always remember to step out of our own limited perspective.  We must realize that what is important to us might not be equally important to the person we are talking to, and to understand that it might be necessary to repeat something in an entirely different way if we want our message to be heard.  Necessary, and - as the Torah shows - well worth the effort.  This is what will bring the four children to the seder table year after year, this is what will keep them growing, exploring, and asking again and again.
Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher vi’Samayach!

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