Parshat Tzav (5774)


Leviticus 6 – 8

Priests or Royalty, Everyone Needs To Be of Service

Today we are going to take a look at this parsha, and also touch a bit on the holiday of Purim since this season is once again upon us. I hope everyone is enjoying this time of celebration.

Another active Queen Esther would have probably been fond of. "After months of begging her father to let his heir pitch in, Elizabeth—then an 18-year-old princess—joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II. Known as Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, she donned a pair of coveralls and trained in London as a mechanic and military truck driver. The queen remains the only female member of the royal family to have entered the armed forces and is the only living head of state who served in World War II."

Another active queen, one Esther would have probably been fond of. Queen Elizabeth II: “After months of begging her father to let his heir pitch in, Elizabeth—then an 18-year-old princess—joined the Women’s Auxiliary Territorial Service during World War II. Known as Second Subaltern Elizabeth Windsor, she donned a pair of coveralls and trained in London as a mechanic and military truck driver. The queen remains the only female member of the royal family to have entered the armed forces and is the only living head of state who served in World War II.”

The reason we need to enjoy these celebrations so much is because we don’t always have time of rest to enjoy. Most of us keep quite busy schedules, myself included. Despite illness and limitations, I find myself quite active. People often ask why I feel the need to keep industrious, even when I feel so low. The reason is simply because it’s a Jewish value to be active.

This is a thought I cant help but keep in mind in light of the Purim holiday. This holiday is very significant to me, because of the true heroine of the story; the beloved Queen Esther. The brave queen who can be thought of as the patron saint of crypto-Jews – the secret Jews of Spanish-Portuguese extraction, the hidden Jews who survived the Inquisition which raged across several continents. (see “Queen Esther: Patron saint of crypto-Jews”) As a hidden Jew herself, Esther’s story brings comfort to many of us. To all of us minorities who once hid it, but who are now braving to embrace our Judaism outwardly. As it turns out, on both sides of my family I know I’m the first to be privileged to join in mainstream Judaism, since who knows how long.

One of the things that people often ask me is how it was possible for all those families to keep their sense of who they were throughout rough years, including the age of the Inquisition. We don’t often consider it, but Jews were even burned here in the Americas for practicing secretly as well. (see “Crypto Jews in Mexico during Spanish Colonial Era”) So keeping secret was essential, but so was passing on one’s sense of identity. As always Shabbat observance was the sign which both guarded identity and threatened to give people away upon inspection. Either keeping the sabbath, or doing things just slightly differently on that day to acknowledge the sabbath.

So too it was the case with Queen Esther, as we are told according to tradition. The scriptures teach us that when she was taken into the royal harem she was given seven servants from the house of King Achashverosh. (Esther 2:9) We don’t know if this was among the things she asked for, or if was just purely because the royal servant gave her this out of his kindness towards her as suggested. What ever the case, the next verse tells us she didn’t tell anyone about her family or her people because Mordechai told her not to. She kept her Jewishness a secret.

However, we are told that each of these servants she had assigned to a different day of the week. Though it might not seem apparent to non-Jewish people, the days of the week in Hebrew are named Yom Rishon (the First Day), Yom Sheini (the Second Day), Yom Shlishi (the Third Day), etc. – corresponding to the day of the week, starting over with Shabbat. She might not have been able to have kept noticeable count in the palace, our tradition says, but she was able to know it was Shabbat and act appropriately based on the servant who served on that day.

I am also of the understanding that our tradition gives the names of these seven servants assigned to Queen Esther. We don’t often give enough consideration to the ladies in our tradition, so I want to take a moment now. We should also pause to take notice, as I am told each of these names has a specific meaning. These women servants are named:

Cholta

Meaning creation, corresponding to the first day of creation

Rokaita

Meaning firmament, the days of the creation of the heavens

Ginonita

Meaning vegetation, as the plants appear on the third day

N’horita

Meaning illumination, corresponding to the sun, moon and stars of the heavens

Rochshita

Meaning crawling creatures, corresponding to the creation of animal life

Chorfita

Meaning, “the eve of” – meaning the the eve of Shabbat

Rogaita

Meaning calmness, which reminds one of the day of rest which is Shabbat

The names correspond to the seven day creation story. A name was assigned to each of the servants, so that she would remember each day of the week based upon the servant which attended her. (Targum Rishon) We are told that they not only helped her keep the days, but also helped her keep a kosher diet of vegetables like the prophet Daniel (Talmud Megillah 13a). In this midrash our rabbis reveal how understated practices, names, language, and diet have often been signs of one’s not so obvious uniqueness.

Now before we move on from this story, I want us to notice that even those who accept this midrash are a bit critical of this legend. Some asking questions, like what type of example is Esther to us working-class men? And if we think about it, what does a queen in a palace need seven servants for anyhow? With seven servants how does she even know that it is Shabbat at all, would not each day be a rest for her?

Some are of the opinion that this is really what showed Esther’s exceptionalness. If she was to keep a day or rest, she would have had to have taken preparations. And even more impressive, some of our rabbis suggest that she was more of an activist queen. She went about actively involving herself in welfare and aid for the six days, and then one day she rested. She staggered her servants out so that to six servants she looks industrious in public service, but only the seventh servant would think her merely a typically lazy queen who was waited on hand and foot.

The logic goes, keeping here secret wouldn’t be possible working them all each and everyday.

But in this lesson we also get an interesting picture of what an exceptional woman – dare we say an eishet chayil, a woman of valor – in the person of Queen Esther. (see Parshat Yitro 2013) In this midrash she exemplifies a person who shows that we need to work the other days of the week in order for the sabbath to have any real significance at all. It would be nothing worth acknowledging if we merely rested all the time. Shabbat is the reward for those who labor.

Just as much as we are demanded to rest on Shabbat, we are commanded to work when it’s not the sabbath. (see “Call of Torah” by Rabbi Elie Munk, Shemot 20:9)

Our tradition doesn’t state where she got her scheduling advice from. But I think I have a clue for us found in this week’s Torah portion. After that long sidetrack, let’s jump right into our verse now:

“And any meal offering

baked in an oven,

and any one made in a deep pan

or in a shallow pan,

belongs to the kohen who offers it up;

it shall be his”’

| Vechol-minchah

| asher te’afeh batanur

| vechol-na’asah vamarcheshet

| ve’al-machavat

| lakohen hamakriv

| otah lo tiheyeh

Leviticus 7:9

In this verse we learn that from these mincha offerings portions were taken by the kohen (priests), and we are commanded that it is to be consumed by the priests who offered it up and who are ritually pure. But regarding who could divide these portions, we learn of that here. The item which was offered up by that priest who did offering, it’s portions belong to him.

We have to remember that the people were giving grains, oils, meat, etc. which the Levitic priests depended on for their sustenance. In an agrarian society they had no land holdings, being dependent on their portion of the offerings and tithes. Even from certain sacrifices a portion was taken for them, a portion for themselves and the other priestly brothers to eat from.

Now how does this work? Where there competing priests at the entrance of the Temple waiting for you like car salesmen? Circling like sharks? Was their competition and turf wars? Were some families more well-recognized and favored in the Temple, so that some families did better off than others?

This is answered for us in the commentary by Rashi for this verse:

Belongs to the kohen who offers it up: One might think that it belongs to him alone. Scripture, therefore, states (in the next verse), “[And any meal-offering…] shall belong to all the sons of Aaron.” One might think, then, that it [indeed] belongs to all of them. Scripture, therefore, states (in the preceding verse), “belongs to the kohen who offers it up.” So how [can this be reconciled]? [It belongs] to the family of the day when they offer it up.

לכהן המקריב אתה וגו‘: יכול לו לבדו, תלמוד לומר לכל בני אהרן תהיה. יכול לכולן, תלמוד לומר לכהן המקריב, הא כיצד לבית אב של אותו יום שמקריבין אותה:

Rashi to Leviticus 7:9

In the Torah we see that there are two branches of families among the sons of Aharon, the house of Elezar and the house of Itamar. From each of these clans the original service order for temple service was assigned, shared between them. There being four service groups from Elezar, and four service groups from Itamar. They would be rotated each day of the week, and then all come together on the sabbath. Make perfect sense on how to organize a 28 day month, assigned them all over 24 days and once a week they all come together and work – this day being the sabbath. There coming together to work corporately also in effect on the other festival days, when the assistance of the entire priesthood was essential.

Eventually as the Israelite population grew and the kohanim grew commensurately, there became 24 of these family work groups (mishmerot). Their service then was shifted to week-long assignments. (Torat haKohanim) And this was the method that went into effect in the days of the prophets and the early Temple periods. Of all the service groups our tradition only knows of four that remained through the ages. These four were returned back to Eretz Yisrael from the Babylonian exile, where they were organized by Ezra haSofer (Ezra, the scribe for whom the book of the bible is named) to help establish another 24 mishmerot in the second Temple period.

Now many people don’t like the way that this system of priesthood, nor the ability of these priest to take from offerings. A cynic would say, why do these guys get to take from some of the best of our produce and meats? They barely work at all, some can say.

If we were to assign mishmerot, a family would be assigned to about one workday a week, with one sabbath day of service. Which translates to at most two days on duty per week, whereas us working-class people work 6 days a week. That’s not a lot of work, surely not enough to sustain oneself alone off this enterprise. For this reason we learn here through Rashi that they shared with their entire families so that no one was without.

So simply put, before the priestly system got corrupted in the Hasmonean days the priestly system wasn’t really thought of as a money-making system. People were still supported off of contributions of Israel, and the sharing among themselves. It wasn’t an occupation which people got rich off of.

So why would they be motived to engage in this service at all? If we even think about it long we enough, most of us can quickly think of more efficient methods of organizing labor as well. Why not just assign the best suited and most fit for service, and just get the job done and done right? Why go through all these complexities?

In the same manner that we can be critical of the midrash regarding Esther and her seven servants, we seem to follow the same critiques. Like we ask of Esther, how can we credit these priests with “avodah” (work) when these people seem to barely work at all?

Rarely do people consider all the things the kohanim do aside from just sacrifices, like also filling very social service roles such as inspecting the illness of the sick. The kohanim weren’t a sort of caste just stilling idly in their ivory towers. They contributed heavily, but in a different way than the average laborer.

But even in this assignment there is a lesson, I believe. I believe the reason for assigning these mishmerot in this fashion was not because it was economical or efficient, but because it simply gave each family of kohanim a chance to participate in priestly service – their avodah. It is that important that everyone be active participants in this culture of Torah living.

We also need to understand that it was the priests who needed this service, probably even more than the priesthood needed them. There were enough able-bodied kohanim to go around most of the time. But that is what community is about, us each doing our part. We don’t need to do the job the best, and we don’t need to do it all ourselves. In fact our contributions might be merely symbolic. But nonetheless it is a Jewish value that we all shoulder the burned of communal responsibility with one another. And that we all have the honor and pride of service.

As we continue to read through Vayikra – the book of Leviticus, I want us to remember the theme that has been carried over from Shemot – from Exodus. We are at a stage in the journey were everything becomes a discussion about the Mishkan – the so-called tabernacle. This was a powerful symbol, because it was the Israelite’s way of remedying a rift in the relationship with G-d the people felt since the Gold Calf – when they got impatient and refused to wait for instructions on what to do next and took matters into their own hands. The truth is Jews always feel they need to be industrious, and we can either use that for good or bad. Sometimes this can get us into trouble if not channeled correctly.

And that is what I am stuck by as I read the commentaries of our rabbis, including Rashi who is ever-present in our chumashim. One of the things that they keep pointing out is the people’s focus on their work being accepted so that it could provide an active ritual service which enabled them to feel close to G-d. This work wasn’t so much for G-d’s acceptance, as it was for their own. Indeed this was their way of also redeeming themselves as well.

All the people of Israel contributed for the construction and the ongoing offerings, and all the priests were included in the service to make it functional. Because we all need to feel like we have a place, and we all should feel like we have something to contribute to society.

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