Shabbat Shalom: Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel – The Sabbath before Pesach is called “The Great Sabbath” (Shabbat Hagadol) after the last verse of the reading from the prophets (haftara) for that day: “Behold I send you Elijah the Prophet before the coming of the great and awesome day of the Lord” – the day of Redemption (Malachi 3:23). It is certainly logical that Elijah, the herald of the redemption, features before Pesach – the “time of our freedom” and redemption from Egyptian servitude.

But what kind of person is Elijah, who will be the “messenger of good news, salvation and comfort” (Grace after Meals)?

The biblical Elijah was a zealot who slaughtered 450 prophets of Baal after a contest at Mount Carmel, and challenged God to punish the Israelites for having rejected His covenant and allowed Jezebel to murder the Lord’s prophets (I Kings 19:10). But somehow in Talmudic and folk tradition, Elijah morphs into a benign, grandfatherly figure who drinks from a special goblet at everyone’s Seder table, graces every newborn male baby with his presence at their circumcision and frequently appears as a deus ex machina to teach important lessons and save people’s lives at critical moments.

Just when, why and how did this fiery fanatic become a venerable sage? Let us look again at the biblical text and I believe we’ll discover the dynamics of the process.

Elijah lives in Israel under the idolatrous monarchy of Ahab and Jezebel, Baal devotees who murdered the prophets of the Lord. The wrath of God is expressed in the form of a drought which wreaks havoc on the land. Elijah stages a Steven Spielberg-style extravaganza: He convinces King Ahab to invite all the Israelites to the foot of Mount Carmel, where he has the 450 prophets of Baal choose a bull. Elijah takes another bull, and each animal is cut in half and placed on an altar without a fire – one altar to God and one to Baal. The victor will be the person whose altar is graced by fire from on high.

After the better part of a day of fruitless prayers, incantations and orgiastic immolations by the prophets of Baal, Elijah drenches his offering in water and then calls out to God. A fire descends from heaven, consuming his offering together with the wood, the stones, the water and the earth. The Israelites cry out: “The Lord! He is God!”

Elijah then slaughters the 450 prophets of Baal, clouds gather and a great rain comes down. Elijah is exultant, until he receives a message from Queen Jezebel, who vows that “at this time tomorrow I shall make your soul like one of those [prophets of Baal].”

Elijah is shocked that she does not repent or seek forgiveness for her idolatrous ways. Yet he also understands the shrewdness in her words. After 24 hours, she shall have him killed! Why not immediately? Because it will take the Israelites only 24 hours to forget the immediacy of the miracle. After only one day, the Israelites will forget about God and allow the wicked queen to destroy His only remaining prophet.

Elijah escapes to Beersheba and asks God to take his soul. An angel provides him with food and sends him on a 40-day journey to Mount Sinai. When he arrives, God asks why he has come, and he responds: “I have been a zealot; yes, a zealot for the Lord God of hosts, because the Israelites have forsaken Your covenant; they have destroyed Your altars, they have killed Your prophets and they now seek to take my life as well, I who am now left alone” (I Kings 19:10).

Elijah understands that despite the great miracle he wrought at Mount Carmel, no one has repented, nothing has changed, and his life is in danger.

God then sends Elijah a vision: a great, powerful wind, but the Lord is not in the wind; an earthquake, but the Lord is not in the earthquake; a fire, but the Lord is not in the fire. And after the fire comes a still, silent sound – the voice of the Lord.

God is telling His prophet that people aren’t moved in the long term by miracles on a mountain – whether Mount Sinai or Mount Carmel – and that the Israelites will not be forced into submission by dire punishments. After the first revelation at Sinai, they worshiped the Golden Calf, and after the revelation at Mount Carmel, they didn’t repent of their idolatry, despite their shouts of “The Lord! He is God!”

The Israelites will be moved only by learning of God’s second revelation at Sinai – the glimpse He shared with Moses into His divine essence by the still, small voice of kindness and understanding, by the God of love and forgiveness (Exodus 34:6-8).

And this is precisely what Malachi says at the conclusion of his prophecy. There is the possibility that “the end of days” will be awe-some and awe-ful, replete with war, destruction and the bare survival of the faithful remnant; but the preferred possibility is that the end of days come as a result of national repentance for ignoring the voice of God, and the return of Israel to our heavenly Father in love and gratitude rather than out of fear. Elijah must “turn back the hearts of the parents to their children and the hearts of the children to their parents” with the still, silent sound of unconditional love. God does not want to “strike the land with utter destruction” at the end of days (Malachi 3:24).

The rabbis of the Midrash go one step further. God is teaching Elijah that the prophet wanted to punish Israel only because he grossly misjudged them when he said, “They rejected Your covenant.” Elijah will be “taken to heaven” (II Kings 2: 11, 12), but he will have to shuttle between heaven and earth, he will attend every Pesach Seder where Jews celebrate God’s promise of redemption, and be present at every circumcision where Jews demonstrate their willingness to shed blood for the covenant. The prophet will transform his people not by judging (or misjudging) them, but only by loving them with the still, small sound of our Father’s unconditional love.

The opening words of this third book of the Bible, the Book of Vayikra, tells us that God first called to Moses and then communicated to him a specific message concerning the sacrificial offerings of the Sanctuary. Why this double language of “calling” first and then “speaking” afterwards? Why not cut to the chase: “And the Lord spoke to Moses from the Tent of Meeting”?

The Talmudic sage Rabbi Musia Rabbah, in Tractate Yoma (4b), explains that the Bible is giving us a lesson in good manners: before someone commands another to do something, he must first ask permission to give the order. He even suggests that before someone begins speaking to another, one must ascertain that the person wishes to hear what he has to say. With great beauty, the rabbis suggest that even God Himself follows these laws of etiquette when addressing Moses; asking his permission before speaking to or commanding him.

The Ramban (Nahmanides) takes a completely opposite view, limiting this double language of addressing to the Sanctuary specifically: “this (seemingly superfluous language of first calling and then speaking) is not used elsewhere (where God is addressing Moses); it is only used here because Moses would not otherwise have been permitted to enter the Tent of Meeting, would not otherwise have been permitted to be in such close proximity to the place where the Almighty was to be found” (Ramban ad loc).

From this second perspective, it is Moses who must first be summoned by God and receive Divine permission before he dare enter the Sacred Tent of Meeting of the exalted Holy of Holies.

This latter interpretation seems closest to the Biblical text; since the very last verses in the Book of Exodus specifically tell us that whenever a cloud covered the Sanctuary, Moses was prevented from entering the Tent of Meeting and communicating with the Divine (Exodus 40:34, 35). Hence, the Book of Leviticus opens with God summoning Moses into the Tent of Meeting, apparently signaling the departure of the cloud and the Divine permission for Moses to hear God’s words.

This scenario helps us understand God’s relationship – and lack thereof – with the Israelites in general and with Moses in particular. You may recall that the initial commandment to erect a Sanctuary was in order for the Divine Presence to dwell in the midst of the Israelites (Ex. 25:8); such a close identity between the Divine and the Israelites on earth would signal the period of redemption. This would have been a fitting conclusion to the exodus from Egypt.

Tragically, Israel then sin with the Golden Calf and God immediately informs them that “I cannot go up in your midst because you are a stiff-necked nation, lest I destroy you on the way” (Exodus 33:3). Only if the Israelites are worthy can God dwell in their midst. If they forego their true vocation as a “sacred nation and a Kingdom of priest-teachers” while God is in such close proximity to them, then this God of truth will have to punish and even destroy them. He will therefore now keep His distance from them, retaining His “place”, as it were, in the supernal, transcendent realms, and sending His “angel-messenger” to lead them in their battles to conquer the Promised Land (ibid 33:2,3).

As a physical symbol of the concealment – or partial absence – of the Divine (hester panim), Moses takes the Tent of Meeting and removes its central position in the Israelite encampment, to a distance of 2000 cubits away (33:7). He then remonstrates with God arguing that the Almighty had promised to show His love by means of His Divine Name, to reveal to him His Divine attributes; and to accept Israel as His special nation (33:11,12). In other words, Moses argues that that He, God – and not an angel-messenger – must reveal His Divine ways and lead Israel (Rashbam on 33:13).

God then responds that indeed “My face will lead” – I, Myself and not an angel-messenger – and “I shall bring you (you, Moses, but not the nation) to your ultimate resting place” (33:14). Moses is not satisfied, and argues that God Himself – His “face” and not His angel-messenger – must lead not only Moses but also the nation! Otherwise, he says, “do not take us (the entire nation) out of this desert”. And finally, God agrees that although He cannot be in the midst of the nation, He can and will lead them, stepping in whenever necessary to make certain that Israel will never disappear and will eventually return to their homeland.

God may not be completely manifest as the God of love in every historical experience of our people, and will not yet teach the world ethical monotheism. Israel remains a “work-in-progress” with God behind a cloud and “incommunicado”. Our nation, albeit imperfect, still serves as witnesses that the God of love and compassion exists, and orchestrates historical redemption through Israel. God is “incorporated,” incorporealized, in Israel, the people and the land.

What God leaves behind even when He is in a cloud are the two newly chiseled tablets of stone – His Divine Torah with the human input of the Oral Law – as well as His thirteen “ways” or attributes: God’s spiritual and emotional characteristics of love, compassion, freely given grace, patience, kindness, etc. (Leviticus 34:1-7). And when individuals internalize these attributes – imbue their hearts, minds and souls with love, compassion, kindness, grace and peace – they cause God to become manifest, enabling them to communicate with God “face to face”, like Moses. Then the cloud between Moses’ Active Intellect and God’s Active Intellect disappears, and Moses is enabled to teach and understand God’s Torah.

And so, Vayikra opens when God perceives that Moses has reached the highest spiritual level achievable by mortals, the cloud is removed from the Tent of the Meeting and God invites Moses to enter it and receive more of those Divine Emanations which comprise our Bible.

Shabbat Shalom


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