Parashat Tsav 5781


24 March 2021 – 11 Nisan 5781

Rabbi Danny Rich

 
On Tuesday 23 March, the first anniversary of the first UK lockdown, there will be a National Day of Reflection. I am writing this between ward visits at a major acute district hospital in London where I have been serving one long day per week as a general Chaplain. For all the things that do not get completed and for all the pressures under which it works, I am proud to be a part of the National Health Service (NHS) as it struggles to fulfil all that is expected of it.

Apart from feeling I am ‘doing my bit’, I am able to witness generosity beyond measure, commitment above expectation, and sacrifice exceeding comfort. A practical benefit is that I received my first vaccination (Pfizer, before you ask) and my second last week – and in between I caught Covid! Yesterday the following text message arrived on my mobile telephone:

NHS Blood Transfusion are asking 18-65 males who have had COVID-19 to donate plasma for new treatment research that could save lives – complete the online donor form at www.nhsbt.hns.uk

Thus was I thrown into the midst of Parashat Tzav which is read in synagogues on 26 March.

Parashat Tzav is Levitical material par excellence. It opens with the continuation of the details of the types of offering – the olah: the burnt offering (6:1-6), minchah: the grain offering (6:7-16), chattat: the purification offering (6:17-23) and zevach haShlamim: the sacrifice of well-being. The rest of the parashah deals with the initiation of formal worship, particularly the consecration of the priests and the mishcan: the mobile centre of sacrifice and worship.

The request to donate plasma – a yellowish liquid component of blood which holds the blood cells of the whole body in suspension, that is the liquid part of the blood which carries cells and proteins throughout the body – and my writing of this piece drew me to the following verses (7:26-27):

And you must not consume any blood, either of bird or of animal, in any of your settlements. Anyone who eats blood shall be cut off …

This prohibition already appears in last week’s parahshah (Leviticus 3:17) and is repeated in Deuteronomy 12:23 but is given most detail in a later chapter (17:13-14) of the Book of Leviticus:

And if any Israelite or any stranger who resides among them hunts down an animal or a bird that may be eaten, he shall pour out its blood and cover it with earth. For the life of all flesh – its blood is its life. Therefore I say to the Israelite people: You shall not partake of the blood of any flesh, for the life of all flesh is its blood. Anyone who partakes of it shall be cut off.

It is not immediately clear why it was not permissible to drink the blood when an animal might be killed for food but. It may well have been that the Israelites lived among other peoples who drank the blood of animals –and perhaps even humans too – and, as the Israelites sought to distinguish themselves from their neighbours, the prohibition on blood was a totemic means of so doing.

The Levitical text quoted above does indicate that there may have been the idea that the blood contained – or, at least, represented – the essence or soul of the creature concerned, and thus the treating of the blood with respect might suggest a reverence for the life itself. Its opposite was suggested rather controversially by the Yiddish novelist, Isaac Bashevis Singer (1902-1991) controversial in a forward to ‘Vegetarianism, a Way of Life’ by Dudley Giehl:

…as long as human beings will go on shedding the blood of animals, there will never be any peace. There is only one little step from killing animals to creating gas chambers a la Hitler and concentration camps a la Stalin . . . all such deeds are done in the name of ‘social justice’. There will be no justice as long as man will stand with a knife or with a gun and destroy those who are weaker than he is.

The reverence for life itself underpins the system of shechita whereby meat suitable for Jews to eat must have been slaughtered and prepared in a manner which removes as much blood as it is reasonable to do so. In the view of Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the Chief Rabbi of Palestine from 1921to 1935 who taught that the eating of meat was ‘a temporary dispensation given to humanity which has not yet reached the stage of overcoming its murderous instincts’ – a rather harsh judgement imitated by three pescatarian children of the author of this article.

The traditional haftarah for Tzav (from Jeremiah 7:21-8:3 and 9:22-23) mirrors the Torah in its speaking about sacrifices. Jeremiah’s words are part of his ‘Temple sermon’ in which he warns the Jewish people (probably at the beginning of the reign of King Jehoiakim in 609/608 BCE) that their physical nearness to the temple in Jerusalem will not protect them from disaster. Further, he counsels against sacrifices which are not accompanied by godly and goodly acts. The Haftarah opens in dramatic from:

Thus says the God of heaven’s hosts, the God of Israel: Add your {whole} burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the meat! But when I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I neither spoke to them nor commanded them about burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this is the command I gave them; Listen to me and I will be your God and you will be My people: walk only in the way that I have commanded you, and it will go well with you.

The question of vegetarianism remains unresolved in my own family but whether meat eaters or not let it –and all of us- remember the additional verses from Jeremiah appended to the haftarah:

Let not the wise glory in their wisdom, let not the mighty glory in their might, let not the wealthy glory in their riches; but let them who glory, glory in this: that they understand and know me, that I, the Eternal practice kindness, justice and righteousness in the earth for in these things do I delight, says the Eternal One.

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