What the Public Is Owed – Tzav 5784

D'var Torah | Leviticus

The Torah portion for this week begins with God’s instructions to Moses to “command” Aaron and his sons regarding the communal daily burnt offerings (Leviticus 6:2). Since none of the other types of sacrifice include the admonition to command Aaron and his sons, this unusual text is fodder for Rabbinic interpretation. One of the earliest Rabbinic commentaries on the Torah is called Sifra, literally, “the book,” and consists of insights specifically on the book of Leviticus. The Rabbis sometimes refer to this midrash as “Torat Kohanim” (Priestly Instructions) since the book of Leviticus is largely concerned with priestly practice.

According to Rabbi Shimon, the unique word “command” is necessary because “Scripture needs to greatly exhort the priests when their financial loss is involved.” Collectively, the medieval commentators take this statement to mean that the priests needed to be especially warned against scrimping on the sacrifices.  For example, Nahmanides and Elijah Mizrahi explain that the monetary loss refers to the meal offering mentioned in verse 13. The priests might be tempted to give a lesser amount since they retain the remainder for themselves. Others say that since the priests derive no benefit from the burnt offering (except for the hide) they would be less than careful in offering a sacrifice that required oversight the entire night.

There is some historical justification for worrying about priestly malfeasance. The sons of Eli the Priest are described as scoundrels who enriched themselves at the expense of the Israelites who brought sacrifices to Shiloh (I Samuel 2:12). But the thought that the Torah considers all priests as potentially careless if not villainous is preposterous.

Rabbi Ozer Glickman (d. 2018), graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America, faculty member of the Metivta of the Union for Traditional Judaism before becoming a rosh yeshiva at Yeshiva University, suggests an alternative understanding of Rabbi Shimon. The kohanim were responsible for the daily burnt offerings that were financed by communal funds. Thus, the priests had an additional responsibility of ensuring that they fastidiously performed the rituals using the resources of others. The financial loss to which Rabbi Shimon refers is not a financial loss to the priests but a financial loss to the people.

On Rabbi Glickman’s view, the underlying message is that special care must always be given when fulfilling one’s communal duties lest due justice not be given to the contributions of others. These are wise words for all those in public service.

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Words to Live By

What lies behind you and what lies ahead of you pales in comparison to what lies inside you.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson

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