Parshat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36)
Efrat, Israel – It has often been said that if an individual were to be incarcerated for his evil thoughts, no one would be living outside of a penitentiary. Jewish law strongly corroborates this piece of conventional wisdom: “Thoughts or emotions (dvarim shebalev) are not of significance,” since only a person’s actions, and not his/her fanciful imaginings, create culpability. However, this week’s Torah reading, which continues our journey into the remote world of ritual sacrifices, specifies an exception from this “common sense” rule of the paramount importance of accomplished deed over intentional design.
According to the text, the peace offering must be eaten on the same day of the sacrifice. When the peace offering is brought to fulfill a vow, then the time period for eating it is extended to the next day, but not to the day after that. Therefore,. “if any of the flesh of the sacrifice of his feast-offering should be eaten at all on the third day, it shall not be accepted… it shall be an abomination (pigul) and the soul that eats it shall bear his iniquity.” (Lev. 7:18)
Rashi’s comment, based on the Talmudic interpretation (B. T. Kritot 5a), expands the waves of the ‘pigul-effect’ to include thought as well as action—not only is it forbidden to eat a peace offering on the third day, but merely thinking at the time of the sacrifice that one will eat it on the third day disqualifies it from being brought as a valid offering.
And since our prayers are linked to the sacrificial ritual—one view in the Talmud maintains that the three statutory prayers we recite each day correspond to the morning sacrifices, afternoon sacrifices, and evening incense (B.T. Berachot 26a)—it is no wonder that almost all our Sages insist that improper thoughts or even a lack of internal devotion will disqualify the prayer—no matter how carefully the words may be articulated. Why are prayers and sacrifices so inextricably bound up with the thoughts of the individual, whereas in the case of most other commandments, the rule of thumb is that “Divine ordinances do not require internal intent (kavannah)?
Perhaps the answer to this question can be found in the Midrash Rabbah (Chukat 8), which reports how a pagan once confronted the great sage Rabban Yochanan Ben Zakai about the Biblical commandment of the ‘red heifer,’ the special portion which we also read this Sabbath arguing that it resembled sorcery. “You bring a cow, and burn it and grind it up and then take the ashes; if one of you has been defiled by death, you then sprinkle two or three drops on him and you declare him pure!” Even stronger, while the ashes of this red heifer purify the impure, another individual who touches those ashes becomes defiled by them! His students balked at the simplistic response their Master gave to the pagan: “Our Master, you pushed him away with a reed, but what do you say to us?”
The great Sages responded as follows: “By your lives it’s not death that defiles, and it’s not water that purifies. It is rather the Holy One blessed be He who declares, ‘I made my statutes, I have decreed my decrees.’”
Now, I believe that Rabban Yechonan Ben Zakai is saying something far more profound than merely expressing the arbitrary nature of the commandments. Let us look at another comment found in Midrash Tanhuma B’Shallah and a fascinating insight will hopefully emerge: “There were three things over which the Israelites protested, because they brought suffering and tribulation: the incense, the Holy Ark, and the staff. The incense is an instrument of tribulation, because it caused the death of Nadav and Avihu (Lev. 10:2); therefore G-d informed Israel that it is also an instrument of atonement on the Day of Forgiveness. The Holy Ark is an instrument of tribulation, because when Uzzah touched it, he was immediately struck down (2 Sam. 6:7) ; therefore G-d informed Israel that it is also an instrument of blessing of Oved Edom the Gitite. The staff is an instrument of tribulation, because it brought the plagues upon Egypt; therefore G-d informed Israel that it is also an instrument of blessing when Moses did miracles with it.”
In effect, the midrash is explaining that objects—staffs, incense, a holy ark, sacrifices, words of prayer—are not necessarily sacred in themselves. Their purpose is to bring one closer to G-d; in order for this purpose to be realized, the individual must wholeheartedly utilize them to bring him/her closer to G-d. As far as ritual objects are concerned, it is not the object that is intrinsically holy, but it is rather what one does with it and how one relates to it in thought and intent that creates the holiness. Therefore, the very same ashes of the red heifer can purify or defile, just as the very same Holy Ark can bring death or blessing—depending on the purpose for which it is utilized.
That is as far as ritual objects are concerned; the situation is radically different concerning ethical actions. When an individual gives charity, or extends a loan, to a person in need, the intent of the donor is of little or no account; his action is intrinsically significant, no matter the motivation. Hence, the Talmud rules that “a person who says ‘I am giving a sum of money to charity so that my son may live’ is still considered a completely righteous individual (zaddik gamur)” (B.T. Pesahim 8a).
Jewish theology is here teaching a critical lesson. The goal of Judaism, is ethical and moral action, to walk in G-d’s ways—just as He is compassionate, so must we be compassionate” etc. Acts of compassion are intrinsically sacred; they are the very purpose of our being. The purpose of ritual, on the other hand, is in order to bring us close to the G-d of compassion, a means to an end. “You shall build me a Sanctuary, in order that I may dwell in your midst,” commands G-d. Therefore, only rituals that are accompanied with proper intent will lead to the desired end and will therefore have eternal significance.
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