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Seventy Faces of TorahLeadership, Precision, and the Power of Ritual

Parashat Tzav: Leviticus 6:1-8:36

For many of us, the complex details of animal sacrifices in the ancient Temple seem far away from anything that we might consider meaningful, much less comprehensible. What relevance is there in the order of burning and eating ancient sacrifices in a Temple that was destroyed two thousand years ago? Large portions of the book of Leviticus force us to ask why we’re still reading and studying these passages each year. For decades, many of our prayer books have omitted, rephrased, or reinterpreted the many liturgical references to these ancient sacrifices. And liberal theologies have struggled to find meaning in the priesthood and in the culture of the ancient Temple cult, often finding them archaic, hierarchical, meaningless, or a barrier to spirituality.

Indeed it is much easier to ask, as we will soon at our Passover seder: What meaning does the Exodus story have for us? The universally relevant narrative of the redemption of an enslaved people is much easier to comprehend and apply to the issues of the day than the fine details of the types and methods of the ancient sacrificial cult. So why do the Torah text and the commentators over the ages expend so much energy on discussion of the particulars and rules for offering sacrifices, so distant from us in time and in place? And why should we keep studying these passages so carefully when their direct relevance is long gone and their meaning for us often hard to find?

This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, primarily focuses on the role of the priesthood in offering the sacrifices, and specifically on how precise and careful they must be in carrying out these rituals on behalf of the community. Knowledge, precision, and character –whether in ancient ritual or contemporary leadership—matters. It’s not just what leaders do, but who they are, how carefully they attend to their responsibilities, and what they ultimately intend to achieve, that matters for the societies they serve.

The questions of the who, how, and why of leadership couldn’t be more relevant at this moment, when the State of Israel seems to have moved even farther from beginning to consider a peace agreement with the Palestinians, and the discourse of the American presidential campaigns probes the very core of the question: What kind of leaders should be given so much power? Who will be able to serve with the greatest attention to the particulars of what is needed, and respond to the many urgent needs of this hour?

The Israelite priests of the ancient sacrificial cult lived in no less divisive times, or so the historians tell us. What did they know and do that could inspire those aspiring to leadership in our own time?

First and foremost, the priests had to understand precisely what they needed to do. They had to have watched and learned and trained and prepared for such complex work. Second, they also had to engage in that sacred work with enormous care, focus, and commitment.

Leaders in any age must approach all resources as though they are sacred. How carefully a leader handles the precious resources of the people– how carefully and mindfully they perform the right actions in the right place and time—matters, and can unify even the most divided community.

The careful behavior of the ancient priests –and the behavior of all leaders– is so important because their actions show the value they place not only on their role but on the people whom they represent. One of the most powerful effects of the rituals over which they presided was that even the most powerless and most sinful could feel that the most powerful individuals were taking care of them and their offerings.

People who were represented so carefully and responsibly could feel, through such rituals, that the brokenness of the world and the people in it could somehow be repaired through appropriate and careful action. Leadership executed carefully, then, is not just about managing a society, but about healing it so that it can move forward with confidence and optimism.

Thirdly, the character of the priest mattered. The community had to not only trust their skills and witness their careful handling of sacred resources, but believe that they possessed the character to properly execute such a role. The quality of heart, mind, and body of the leader is of great significance; anyone not fit for the role might move the community farther from what it might otherwise become.

Fourth, while the ancient priest had to be without physical blemish – something we can easily reinterpreted in our time — what mattered more was their capacity to strive to fulfil the almost impossible expectations placed upon them. In theory, they were supposed to do all the gruesome sacrificing of many different types of animals without even getting a spattering of blood on their priestly garments. But the biblical text is quick to tell us that if they do get spattered, they must wash the garments immediately.

No matter how messy the business of leadership, leaders have to constantly attend to keeping things clean. And lest we think that any of us can provide a simple recipe for how a leader with great responsibility should act, Parshat Tzav reminds us that leadership isn’t easy, and that mistakes will be made without necessarily immediately disqualifying the leader.

The work of the ancient priests shaped not only the way society functioned, but how it saw itself and its potential, its way forward. In fact, according to the great 20th-century anthropologist Clifford Geertz (1926-2006), ritual can transform us into seeing ourselves as greater and better than we believed we were before. The most meaningful ritual experience is one that can transform the individual in such a way that they want to in turn transform the society in which they live. Geertz reminds us that “in ritual, the world as lived, and the world as imagined… turn out to be the same world.” However we may sin or fall, our best leaders facilitate work—whether ritual or political–that brings us back to our core values and to who we might yet become, as individuals and as a society.

Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. serves the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion as the National Director of Recruitment and Admissions and President’s Scholar.

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