Rabbi Justin Goldstein was ordained in 2011 by the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies at the American Jewish University in Los Angeles, is a 2012-2013 Rabbis Without Borders Fellow and has served Congregation Beth Israel in Asheville NC since 2014.
Often dismissed as irrelevant or boring, Parashat Tzav details some of the ritual procedures for the sacrificial offerings which were made in the Mishkan - the portable sanctuary the Children of Israel carried in the wilderness - and, eventually, offered in the Temple. Among others, there are three types of offerings specified in this week’s Torah portion which I would like to focus on.
The first is to atone for the unintentional wrongdoing of an individual or the nation as a whole, the second, for intentional wrong-doings of an individual or the nation. A third type was brought as an expression of thanks. Sacrifices were not magic; they functioned as symbolic representations of a person’s desire to do better. Today we likewise employ both symbolic and direct actions to seek forgiveness and right our wrongs. We can look at these offerings as a mechanism to understand how our individual actions impact the greater community, how our actions can sometimes only impact our own selves and ways in which we function not merely as individuals but as a unified whole.
Jewish law has many words for doing something wrong and accordingly makes a very firm distinction between actions performed intentionally or unintentionally, and between things done with awareness of the consequence or in ignorance of the consequence. Jewish tradition understands that while going astray is a natural consequence of the human condition, there is always space for improvement; we nearly always get second chances (or third, or fourth, or…)
The Torah tells us that the asham, or guilt, offering, brought for an act done intentionally, was of the highest spiritual category. In explaining it, the great 11th century French commentator, Rashi tells us that this offering cannot be substituted with another offering.
In the case of one making an offering to atone for personal guilt, a substitution cannot be made. There are, however, some instances when a substitution can be made between one animal which has been designated for a sacrifice and another. In the case where an animal which had been designated for sacrifice is not chosen, and another is sacrificed in its place the first cannot be used for labor or food. Instead, it is allowed to live its life until it is no longer fit for sacrifice, and then sold. The money from its sale maintains the status previously held by the animal and can only be used to purchase what is called “a peace offering” - -zevaḥ ha’shlamim. In other words, guilt is transformed into peace.
As a lasting peace between Israelis and Palestinians can so often feel elusive and, at times, even impossible, so many of us have a tendency to want to give up on the prospect of a just and lasting resolution to the Israeli-Arab conflict. Some, on both sides of the issues, have given up on the prospects of a two-state solution. Others have given up on the ability of Israel to maintain its democratic principles. Others still have determined that coexistence is not a priority of either the Palestinian or Israeli leadership. As the conflict drags on, as the military occupation becomes even more entrenched, it becomes more and more challenging to hold onto a faith in humanity and a belief that there can and will be a peaceful, just, and lasting solution.
What the system of sacrifices put forth in the Book of Leviticus offer us is an understanding that even as there are times when we err as individuals, or commit sins as an entire nation, or desire peace and wellbeing in our lives and the lives around us, there is nearly always an opportunity for expiation, recompense and forgiveness. We are reminded that our errors in judgment, both intentional and unintentional, not only impact ourselves but the entire community. We all know, too well, that the intentional and unintentional crimes of one community can also have a dramatic global impact. Yet, just as the sacrificial system provided a mechanism to transform a guilt-offering into a peace-offering I hold onto the vision that we who are committed to a just and lasting peace in Israel and Palestine, have the ability to transform the missteps committed by both parties into grounds for a new way forward. As Rashi reminds us, we cannot substitute our guilty acts - we must acknowledge them. We also, however, cannot allow ourselves to be bound by the past, which is why we can transfer that guilt into a pursuit of peace. Finally, we are reminded that communities, ultimately, are made up of individuals and it is, therefore, our individual responsibility to hold our respective communities accountable to continue to move towards transforming our respective missteps into a collective peace.