The parashah, like much of the book of Vayikra, is concerned with sacrificial rituals. It is about sacrifices as a messy physical reality – the slaughtering of the animal (though this parashah also deals with menachot, offerings of bread), the burning of its entrails, the splashing of its blood. Obviously this raises problems for modern readers.
One common response is to say that since we no longer have a Temple, we no longer need to be interested in these gruesome-sounding rituals, that instead of the primitive notion of sacrificing animals, we offer prayers as a means of worship. However this is not a very productive approach.
First, because ritual remains a key part of our religious expression as Jews, and other than the blood and guts, raises the same issues of irrationality and incomprehensibility as sacrifices (waving palm branches?)
Second, because prayer is beset with all sorts of philosophical and experiential problems too. (Doesn’t God know what we want anyway, even assuming He is out there listening?)
An alternative and more fruitful strategy is to draw ethical lessons from the sacrificial rules. For example, there is a law at the beginning of this parasha which states that the kohen who has the job of clearing away the ashes from the altar – quite a hard and dirty job – has to wear fine linen clothes. This can be taken as a symbol of how even menial jobs can be treated as honourable. Many a good rabbinic sermon has been constructed in this way (in fact it was R Chaim Weiner whom I heard make just such a sermon on the ritual of the ashes many years ago).
What is less well-known is the strategy adopted by the sages of the Talmud. Rather than ‘spiritualising’ sacrifices by looking for philosophical lessons, they intellectualised them through making them part of the halachic process. The Talmudic tractates which deal with sacrifices cannot entirely avoid the blood and guts that we find in today’s parasha. But mostly they are concerned with quite abstract intellectual concepts.
For example, our parasha sets a time-limit for the eating of a certain type of sacrifice. On the back of this, the Talmud creates a complex set of prohibitions on notar – sacrifices past their sell-by date – and considers various increasingly abstruse variations and distinctions. More fundamentally, it establishes a basic principle that sacrifices must be made with the right intent, and then spends pages discussing various complex cases of wrong intentions – wrong time, wrong place, wrong time and wrong place, and so on.
Essentially it is no different from Talmudic discussions of when to say the Shema or what constitutes a valid sale of property. So if you find Tzav dull, try studying Tractate Zevachim!
Daniel Oppenheimer is a member of New North London Synagogue