Plant-Based Torah – Parashat Tetzaveh: You Are What You Do!

March 4th, 2020


In Parashat Tetzaveh, God gives Moses many of the foundational instructions regarding Aaron and his sons as the priests of the Israelites, from their priestly garb, to their ordination ceremony, to specifications of the altar itself. Towards the end of the parsha, an eerily familiar passage takes place for those familiar with traditional liturgy: “Now this is what you shall offer upon the altar: two yearling lambs each day, regularly. You shall offer the one lamb in the morning, and you shall offer the other lamb at twilight. There shall be a tenth of a measure of choice flower with a quarter of a hin of beaten oil mixed in, and a libation of a quarter hin of wine for one lamb; and you shall offer the other lamb at twilight, repeating with it the meal offering of the morning with its libation — an offering by fire for a pleasing odor to the LORD, a regular burnt offering throughout the generations.1 ” The daily offering is introduced here in the book of Exodus – nevertheless, it is repeated in the 28th chapter of Numbers, which is recited each morning in the traditional siddur.

There is a famous rabbinic discussion in which the Rabbis discuss the single most important verse in all of the Torah. First, the great Ben Zoma declares that the greatest verse is “Hear O Israel, the LORD is our God, the LORD is one2 ” – the legendary Shema, a verse so great we reiterate it twice daily. However, Ben Nanas replies with a greater verse: “Love your fellow as yourself!3 ” A beautiful verse indeed – love is the spark that lights the flame of the heart, fuelled by the Divine Source found within each soul. Nevertheless, Shimon Ben Pazi declares an even greater verse than the other two: “The first lamb you shall sacrifice in the morning and the second lamb you shall sacrifice in the evening” – Exodus 29:39, from this very parsha, describing the daily sacrifices. The conversation concludes with Rabbi Ploni arising and declaring that the halacha is in accordance with Ben Pazi.

As animal lovers and advocates, we may find this discussion to be perplexing – the daily sacrifices, greater than Divine Oneness and Love? A head scratcher to be sure. Nevertheless, this discussion is understood that this verse does in fact encompass the previous two verses and more. With the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, animal sacrifices are no longer practiced, and many great thinkers, most notably Maimonides, rejected the idea that a rebuilt Temple would re-institute animal sacrifices. Even the Holy One, Blessed Be God’s Name, dismisses their importance on several occasions, as it is written: “Lovingkindness I desire, not sacrifice; obedience to God, not burnt offerings.4 ” Furthermore, as it is written in Micah: “With what shall I approach the LORD, Do homage to God on high? Shall I approach God with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Would the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with myriads of streams of oil? Shall I give my first-born for my transgression, the fruit of my body for my sins? God has told you, O Humans, what is good and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice and to love goodness, and to walk humbly with your God – then will your name achieve wisdom.5 ” 

The reason why Ben Pazi’s assertion that the verses regarding the Daily Sacrifices being the most important in all of the Torah in truth has little to do with the sacrifices themselves. The verse’s most important lesson is that routine observance of God’s praise through action is foundationally what the Torah asks of us – what we do takes precedence over how we do it when we combine this with God’s own clarifications regarding the importance of sacrifices. Nevertheless, as we see in the book of Micah, it is clear that our central duty is concerned with both the what and the how: to live our lives pursuing justice, acting lovingly, and walking humbly in God’s ways. We will clarify what exactly that final requirement is next week, when God explicitly states what those ways are. For now, however, may we remember that our fundamental duty as Jews is not only to live our lives pursuing justice with open hands and hearts to all of God’s creation, but to be doing it consistently and reliably throughout our days on this earth.

Shabbat Shalom.

  1.  Exodus 29:38-42 
  2.  Deuteronomy 6:4 
  3.  Leviticus 19:18 
  4.  Hosea 6:6 
  5.  Micah 6:6-9 

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