Tzav (Shabbat HaGadol)
I recently heard Karen Armstrong, the prolific author and scholar of religion, speak on NPR about an important shift in religious history which took place between the eighth century and the sixth century BCE.
This shift, which occurred throughout the known world, began as a religious revulsion against the violent warfare of the period and concluded, Armstrong argues, with a reformation focusing on love and compassion as the highest religious ideals.
Armstrong’s insight is most welcome in a world in which religion is commonly used as a rationale for violence. As if the explosion of religiously motivated violence throughout the world is not enough, we recently heard a moderate Muslim cleric in Afghanistan call for the execution of a Muslim man who had converted to Christianity because “it is an insult to Islam.”
Not to be outdone, the Rev. Billy Graham was quoted in Newsweek as saying that when it comes to dealing with the problems of the world, “there is no other answer” than the Gospel. Anyone familiar with evangelical thought knows that, in their world view, anyone who is not saved will have their souls suffer eternally.
As someone who takes the notion of the afterlife seriously, I see a parallel here: Intolerance in this life or intolerance in the afterlife — in either case it’s rabid intolerance.
I could just as easily point to the similar forms of intolerance within Jewish tradition, although it is critical to note that as far as Judaism is concerned, the only ticket to heaven is being an ethical person and, post-biblically, we rarely killed people for having the wrong beliefs.
Still, we as a people are not immune from the disease of intolerance, against others of different faiths or against Jews who don’t believe or act as we do. You know the old Jewish joke: Anyone to my right is a fanatic and anyone to my left is an assimilationist. Shouldn’t religion have something to offer that helps us overcome an intolerant hardness of heart?
I do not claim that our Torah is the only answer to what ails religion and humankind, but the Chassidic master Reb Yehuda Leib Alter of Ger offers an interpretation to our parashah’s focus on sacrifice that points us in an elevating direction.
Commenting on the verse “this is the Torah of the burnt offering … a fire must always burn on the altar; it may not go out,” the Gerer Rebbe writes that Divine love is gifted to us each day and can remain imprinted on our hearts, like the fire which is always on the altar: “As we burn up the waste in our lives, we are uplifted each day, and then we are given new light.”
This teaching offers not just hope, but effective practice. In Chassidic and mystically oriented prayer books we are instructed to recite the opening verses of this parashah each morning. So, too, we might take time daily to examine our inner spiritual lives, to recognize the anger, impatience, desire, ego or other painful spiritual states that are percolating within, and to visualize these feelings being sacrificed and burnt on the altar.
As we offer our “selves” to the fire, we reawaken our connection to the love of the Divine, which supports us in working toward extinguishing those thoughts and feelings which are so unwelcome and which so trouble our hearts. “As we burn the waste in our hearts” we have a greater possibility to become calm, to see truthfully and to open our hearts in love and compassion, even for those people who treat us with intolerance.
With this practice we might not solve all the world’s problems, but we just might glimpse the promise offered in the Haftarah for Shabbat: “I will pour down blessings on you that never cease.”
Rabbi Lavey Derby teaches Kabbalah and Chassidic thought at Conservative Congregation Kol Shofar in Tiburon.