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  • Writer's pictureJosh Scharff

Parashat Tzav - Loving What is Broken

For many years, the book of Leviticus to me seemed to be an impenetrable mystery. What could possibly be the connection between this Reform Jewish kid from the St. Louis suburbs and the Priestly Law - the precepts of Tabernacle worship and the requirements of the priesthood - on which Vayikra (Leviticus) focuses. What I have begun to discover during my years of study and particularly now as I engage in this project, which gives me the privilege to interact the the weekly Torah portions, is that Leviticus is far more than just an challenging set of rules and regulations regarding priestly clothing and the proper way by which to ritually slaughter an animal for God. Viyakra, if we pay close attention, also instructs us in how to create a meaningful relationship with God, what God expects from us, and what we can expect from God in return. 

We see a beautiful example of this in this week’s portion, Parashat Tzav. The portion instructs the Israelites how to properly carry out many different types of sacrifices. The first is the korban olah, a burnt offering. “Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it.” (Leviticus 6:2) 

The olah is burned in its entirety, none of the meat or remains are used. This would have been quite a burden for a family in the ancient world, to offer up one of their precious livestock and receive no benefit from it. So while we understand the magnitude of this sacrifice, there is no concrete reason provided to why someone would need to offer it. There are other types of sacrifices, such as the chatat - sin offering, for which there are very clear transgressions that cause someone to have to bring that sacrifice to the priests. 

The rabbis asked this question, ‘on account of what action would someone be forced to bring an olah to the priests?’ There are several answers given in the midrash VaYikra Rabbah but the one that caught my eye was the following: “Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai said – the olah comes to atone for Harhor Halev - the thoughts of our heart.”

This concept of harhor halev is understood in most sources to be sinful thoughts. While we perhaps did not do any physical transgressions, the rabbis posited that we are commanded to offer the olah due to our desire to sin and thoughts about sinning. Let’s put aside this idea of being punished for sinful thought in Judaism for a moment, because it is not black and white as suggested here, and run with this question of - what is the relationship between an entirely consumed burnt offering and thoughts of or desire to sin? 

The key is connected to the word lev - heart. The Midrash wants to explore the idea that the nature of the olah being entirely given to God is connected to the desire to shape our hearts to be completely dedicated to God. The physical act of sacrifice is not enough. The real desire is to create the emotional connection with and dedication to God alongside the physical act. 

Now, you might be thinking, ‘that seems like a leap - all of this portion is talking about sacrifices, the process, which animals, how and when.’ The physical aspect is front and center. But I am not the first to come up with this connection. In the 51st Psalm, written by King David according to our tradition, David laments and pleads with God for forgiveness after his sinful actions to marry Batsheva: “You do not want me to bring sacrifices; You do not desire burnt offerings; True sacrifice to God is a broken spirit; God, You will not despise a broken and crushed heart.” (Psalms 51:18-19)

King David inherently understood that the truest, most meaningful connections to God, the real offerings to God are emotional and spiritual, not physical. Furthermore, and even more beautiful in my eyes, is that God most loves and cherishes not those hearts and souls that are complete, rather those that are imperfect, even broken. 

We humans see brokenness as something negative, a flaw, rendering a tool unusable or a human marked as deficient or lacking. But in the very same midrash that I quoted from before, the rabbis also bring this piece of wisdom: Rabbi Alexandri said, “If an ordinary person uses broken vessels, it is a disgrace for him, but the vessels used by the Holy one Blessed be He are all broken”, as it is said “God is close to the broken hearted.”

God sees things differently than we do. To what our limited sight and understanding is broken, God looks to work with those vessels in particular, and those human beings who are damaged, are flawed. This midrash expresses a beautiful idea that is found between the lines of Leviticus: Adonai wants to be in a relationship with humanity not despite how broken we are, but because of it. 

Friends, I look around this corner of the world, the Middle East, and nearly all I can see is broken hearts. Hearts that bear scars, traumas, and pain. Some hearts that have been hardened to the pain of others simply because they cannot bear to be broken anymore themselves. It is good that the Torah reminds us this week how badly God wants a connection with humanity and particularly those who are battered and broken in heart and soul. It is good to be reminded of this because it is these very people, the brokenhearted, that are living the real life consequences of this war. And it is these same broken, scarred people who will have to carry out the herculean task of repairing and rebuilding this place when the fighting comes to an end and the hostages are returned to their families (may that day come soon). 

May we be reminded not only this Shabbat, but at all times, of God’s love of the brokenhearted and, from this place of imperfection, may we come together to heal and repair and rebuild all that has been shattered these past months.  

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