Parshat Tzav: Leviticus 6:1-8:36; Malachi 3:4-24. (Shabbat HaGadol)
The intricacies of Temple sacrifice, as described in Parshat Tzav, may seem otherworldly to us. Priests place on the altar particular items determined by a specific sacrifice. Then, over a wood fire, the items are cooked — or burnt. A portion is consumed by the priest and a portion, through the fire itself, is consumed by God.
For the past 2,000 years or so, ever since the Temple was destroyed, this sacrificial tradition has been replaced by liturgical prayer. And with this change, something core to Judaism has been forgotten, or neglected: the belief that all of creation is God’s, and that it is our sacred service as humans to tend it.
If we consider the painstaking labor that went into ancient Israelites cultivating and raising the goods they would later sacrifice — growing grain for wheat, tending olive trees for oil, planting herbs and flowers, raising bulls, rams and birds — we may begin to understand the value these things must have represented for that person.
For that person to be commanded to bring those precious items to the Temple, only to know they will soon go up in smoke must have been heart wrenching.
Except, perhaps, there was something deeper happening. To give of oneself in this way was to remind oneself — and to be reminded — that those items that you raised, grew and cultivated weren’t ever really yours. As we learn in the creation story, those living beings are the manifestation of Divine impulse. Or, as the psalmist (24.1) says: “The earth and everything within it is God’s.”
The sacrifice then, is not giving a gift to God as much as it is reuniting with God what is already Divine. A chance to let go of our very narrow concept of human ownership and embrace the expansive nature-based sanctity of holy stewardship. For everything that is offered upon the altar comes from the earth or was once living. All the raw materials are aspects of God’s unfurling creation.
“Sacrifice” in Hebrew is korban, built from the linguistic root that conveys closeness and intimacy. So while the sacrificial process may at first seem distancing — giving up that which is most precious to us — in fact, affirming our role as sacred stewards of Earth and honoring our interconnectedness with God and the more-than-human world can be an act of profound closeness. From that place of humility and inspiration, we act to ensure that God’s creation remains cherished.
Today, taking sustainable action may no longer look like animal sacrifices and altars, but each of us doing our part for a “greener” planet.
To take your next step, visit hazon.org/brithazon, join the Brit Hazon and commit to change!
Rabbi Nate DeGroot is the Hazon Detroit associate director and spiritual and program director.