Rabbi Fred Morgan
Senior Rabbi, Temple Beth Israel
This week’s portion, Tzav, continues the description of the sacrifices that began last week in Vayikra. To modern sensibilities these are the most difficult sections of Torah. Many people, certainly vegetarians and vegans but others as well, are put off by their graphic terminology of animal slaughter. Others feel that the overwhelming focus on sacrifice, the ritual expression of Jewish values in ancient days, too easily leads us to overlook other significant features of Jewish life, including how we treat each other.
The fear that an all-consuming focus on ritual behaviour may override ethical concerns is already evident from the opening words of the haftarah for Shabbat Haggadol, Malachi 3, which is read on the Shabbat before Pesach. The prophet opens his speech by referring to the hoped-for restoration of the offerings in Jerusalem. He goes on to remark that, before sacrifices can be restored, the people have to face up to their ethical wrongdoings: committing adultery, cheating labourers of their hire, mistreating the widow, the fatherless and the stranger, and so on. According to Malachi, these ethical failures represent a “defrauding” of God.
The thrust of Malachi’s argument is that the fullness of ritual life can be achieved only once the people face up to their ethical responsibilities. Righteousness precedes sacrifice. It is clear from Malachi that this is because our relationship to other human beings in a real sense defines our relationship with God. We cannot pretend to feel thanksgiving, gratitude, regret or the other virtues expressed through sacrifice and other religious rituals if we do not feel them first towards other human beings.
Does this mean, however, that religious rituals are dispensable if we lead an ethical life? Many people argue this way, focusing their energies on living a good life and avoiding religious rituals like the plague; but that’s not what Malachi intends at all. The meanings expressed through sacrifice in ancient days continue to be expressed through Jewish practices today. The rabbis taught that, when the Temple was destroyed and the sacrificial service came to an end, it was replaced by “the service of the heart”, the forms of worship in the synagogue. We all need to be inspired to complete what we set out to do, and religious rituals that connect us to our community and touch our souls do just that.
The finest example of the marriage between religious ritual and ethical behaviour is found in Pesach and the narrative of the Exodus from Egypt. Redemption from slavery is ultimately about how we interact with other people; whether we think about and treat others as objects, or whether we relate to them as subjects in their own right, worthy of the same sort of dignity and respect that we expect for ourselves. Do we enslave others to our own self-interest, or do we make the well-being of others our goal? How we treat the stranger, the alien, the asylum-seeker, the adherent of another faith, is a measure of our godliness.
This is what we are bidden to recall at the seder, in the midst of all the singing and playful banter. But it is within the setting of the seder, religious ritual at its most powerful, that this ethical reflection occurs. Ethical reflection within a ritual setting: that is what the Torah teachings on sacrifice are ultimately about.