Parashat Tzav

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Sermon Finchley Reform, Parashat Tzav

Duty and Sacrifice

He is prepared to die. It is his job.
He brings his sacrifice, his burnt-offering.

We do not know his face or his name. We know nothing of his place of birth, his family or his interests. What is his favourite food? What film did he see last? Did he kiss his wife goodbye before he left to minister to his dreadful task with grim determination?

How can one begin to speak about the open wound of disaster? Words do not seem fitting yet silence becomes an accomplice in forgetting. No words can quiet the tremors of Japan’s earthquakes. When faced with a disaster of such Biblical proportions, questions of meaning push to the fore. As audacious (and perhaps even fruitless) as the task seems, it is our duty to find perspective on these events. At the same time, we should be cautioned to remember that neither justification nor comfort can be found in the inadequacy of mere words.

The official death toll runs in the tens of thousands but will surely rise. Japan was not only struck by the rippling of the earth but further castigated by the ferocity of tsunamis and the unrelenting chill of snow. Meanwhile, the country—one of the most developed in the world—has been crippled by a lack in oil, power, water, food and healthcare. We read devastating stories of people pulling deceased family members from the rubble, the elderly huddled by wood stoves in frigid buildings and children wandering around lost and hungry. The destitution is complete.
And there is more. The threat of nuclear meltdown looms large for Japan and its capital, Tokyo, with thirty million inhabitants. The mortally wounded nuclear power plant Fukushima is losing the ability to cool its reactors.

Amidst this chaos and despair, we witness the courage of the men whose names we do not know. Our hero and his 199 colleagues work tirelessly in shifts of fifty persons and at great personal cost to prevent the nightmarish scenario of meltdown. The government has increased the standard of permitted radiation so that this remarkable team of atomic workers can work on. Their families have not called them back in the full knowledge that they may perish. During this month of Adar Sheni, we hear the echo of Queen Esther’s voice: ‘cha’asher avadeti, avadeti’ – ‘and if I perish, I perish’ (Esther 4:16).

What unfathomable courage and sense of commandedness lie at the heart of these words.

This Shabbat touches upon Parashat Tzav, addressing the numerous sacrifices. The parasha opens with the issuing of a firm and eternally-binding command: ‘Tzav et Aharon v’et banav lemor, zot torat haolah hi’ – ‘command Aaron and his sons thus; this is the ritual of the burnt offering’ (Lev. 6:2) The text then goes on to speak on how the fire of the all-consuming offerings continues to burn ‘kol halailah ad haboker’ - 'all night until the morning'. Talmudic commentaries explain that no matter where the Israelites and their portable sanctuary sojourned, the fire burnt on, even when covered by a copper bowl.

The tradition wants us to honour the sacrificial cult but we moderns find it legitimately troubling. What if we explore the metaphor and boldly re-read it in light of the tragedy in Japan? There lurks a danger in the Mishkan, a lethal type of holiness, almost like radioactivity. We read in the second book of Samuel (6:6), for instance, that when one touches the Ark of the Covenant, one instantly dies as happens to the Biblical character Uzzah.

The supernal sacrificial fires are forces beyond human control. And yet the priests are commanded to feed the flames and bring offerings, ‘lehakriv’, to draw near these awesome forces. We will learn more of the dangers in next week’s reading of Parashat Shemini. Here, the overzealous sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu bring ‘esh zara’, strange fire, as an offering (Lev 10:1-3). They are instantly consumed. Moses offers empty words and Aaron replies with silence.

Perhaps, in a twisted manner, the Torah warns us to take utter care with the unseen forces of divinity, whether locked up in the hearts of sacred flame or the cores of unstable atoms. Perhaps our Japanese nuclear technicians are like latter-day Cohanim, who in a dark re-envisioning of the sacrificial cult, try to stay the power of the fire. And perhaps each of us can ponder the consequences on how we should fuel our world.

Words of moral courage and steely resolve can be immensely powerful but only when they galvanise us. Else, words remain hollow, starving hope. In the coming days, we will hear many empty words. Pledges of political leaders to ‘investigate’ and ‘reconsider’ nuclear energy. Fears of economists that the Yen will continue to plummet, a concern that borders on the obscene when seen through the lens of human suffering. Grisly media reports that may either shock or numb us in the face of enormity. Even the sermons of well-intentioned rabbis and community leaders will ring hollow if their meaning is not followed by action.
And action is shaped by duty and sacrifice.

We may and must be thankful that our sacrifices need not be so dire nor the command so severe. Yet there are many other ways in which we can choose to stand and act and bring our offerings, giving wings to words, fullness to promise and power to meaning. Let us all think about the ways in which we may be able to help Japan. Let us act to help further a vision of a world were solidarity is the immediate response to disaster, where the value of human life trumps that of the stock market and where we will keep the command to remember our true heroes.
Let us work to fill hollow words can be with hope so that they may become crucibles in which we forge solidarity, compassion and resolve.

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