March 23rd: Tzav
THIS WEEK IN THE TORAH
Rabbi David E. Ostrich
There are lots and lots of details in Leviticus, and some seem more compelling than others. In some ways, this part of the Torah is like a recipe book. As a step by step guide to offering sacrifices, it is excellent. However, without a narrative thread, Leviticus can be hard going. Nonetheless, there are some compelling lessons—where the ancient spiritual dynamic can instruct us in our own.
The sacrifices were in most cases meals—sacred meals cooked and eaten in honor of God. Worshippers would bring forth their offerings of food materials, and the priests would prepare the holy meals. Then, both worshippers and priests would share the food. Depending on the ritual purpose of the sacrifice and the relative wealth or poverty of the worshipper, various animals were brought forth: oxen, calves, sheep, goats, and even doves. Then there was the grain—probably wheat or barley. Then there was oil, and then there was wine. Sometimes, the worshippers would bring already prepared bread—and the Torah mentions several kinds, some leavened and others unleavened. Other times, the priests would mix grain and oil and make a kind of griddle cake on the altar.
The inedible parts of the animals were, of course, not eaten. These were burned until they were ashes and removed from the holy precinct. In the case of the grain offerings, some were made inedible by the addition of frankincense, and they were burned as a re’ach nicho’ach ladonai, a “pleasing odor to the Lord.”
This phrase re’ach nicho’ach ladonai is used quite a bit in the Torah, though I think the current colloquial understanding of odor as unpleasant is not what the ancients meant. Perhaps the word aroma might be a better translation. The idea was that God liked certain aromas and would come to enjoy them. The smell of certain incenses and the smell of cooking meat was pleasant, and the ancient understanding was that such good smells would attract God (or the gods) so people could offer their prayers.
The question for us—some 3000 years later—is how do we attract God’s presence? Of course, our attitude is that God is omnipresent: already here and paying attention. We do not have to get God to move from another place to our vicinity. And yet, there is still a notion of making God feel welcome. We do so with our sincerity, with our piety, with our righteousness and holiness and humility—and here are the Biblical verses which remind us how this all works:
Psalm 145.18: “The Lord is near to all who call, to all who call out with sincerity.”
Psalm 33.1: “The righteous rejoice with the Lord; it is fitting for the upright to praise God.”
Which has been interpreted by the Sages of the Prayer Book to mean: “By the mouths of the upright are You acclaimed. By the words of the righteous are You praised. By the tongues of the faithful are You exalted. In the midst of the holy are You made Holy.”
Micah 6.8: “It has been told you, O Humans, what the Lord requires of you: only to do justice, to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God.”