Light from the Sidra

Tzav ('Command').15 March 2014. 13 Adar 5774

Torah: Leviticus 6:1-8:36. Haftarah: 1 Samuel 15:2-34

Please note that unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from Tanach (The Artscroll™ Series/Stone Edition, April 2013. Published and Distributed by Mesorah Publications, Ltd, 4401 Second Avenue / Brooklyn, New York 11232)

Hallelujah for Purim!

Some jobs by their very nature are dangerous. The more dangerous the job, the more rigorous the training has to be and the greater the safeguards that have to be set in place. But no job was as dangerous as that of the High Priest in ancient Israel. Following their ordination to the priesthood, in Leviticus 8:35 Aaron and his sons were instructed to remain at the entrance to the tabernacle day and night for seven days. If they did not do so, they would die.

When it came to the priesthood, God operated a one-strike-and-you’re-out-policy. No verbal warnings. No formal written warnings. No dismissal. Just death. The priests were holy. They were set apart to represent the people to God. The priests were to familiarise themselves with God’s requirements and had to carry out their duties to the letter. If they failed, they died.

To us, all that might appear to be a tad harsh. But isn’t that what we’ve been learning since the first three chapters of the Torah? God told Adam and Eve they were not to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, or they would die. They ate and they died.

The reason we think of God’s mitzvot as too extreme is that we do not understand the holiness of God. And the reason we do not understand the holiness of God is that we are not holy. How can the unholy understand the holy? How can the finite understand the infinite?

The Haftarah this week provides a fascinating link to Purim, which begins on Saturday night. Leviticus 6 records the regulations for the sacrificial system and the various offerings and in 1 Samuel 17 King Saul excused his disobedience to a specific command of God under the pretext of piety. God commanded Saul to destroy the Amalekites and all their possessions because the Amalekites attacked Israel without provocation while Israel was in the Sinai on their journey from Egypt to the Promised Land. In Exodus 17:16, God declared that he would maintain a war against Amalek from generation to generation. In Deuteronomy 25:17ff, Israel was charged to:


Remember what Amalek did to you, on the way, when you were leaving Egypt, that he happened upon you on the way, and he struck those of you who were hindmost, all the weaklings at your rear, when you were faint and exhausted, and he did not fear God. It shall be that when HASHEM, your God, gives you rest from all your enemies all around, in the land that HASHEM, your God, gives you as an inheritance to possess it, you shall wipe out the memory of Amalek from under the heaven — you shall not forget!


Saul wiped out all the Amalekites except their king Agag and the best of Amalek’s livestock. His intention, he told Samuel, was to sacrifice the cattle and sheep to HASHEM. Samuel’s response was sharp and succinct: ‘Does HASHEM delight in elevation-offerings and feast-offerings, as in obedience to the voice of the LORD? Behold — to obey is better than a choice offering, to be attentive than the fat of rams. For rebellion is like the sin of sorcery, and verbosity is like the iniquity of idolatry. Because you have rejected the word of God, He has rejected you as king.’ (1 Sam 15:22f,)

Samuel was not saying that sacrifices were redundant. If that was the case, why are the first seven chapters of Leviticus taken up with the minute details of what sacrifices were to be offered, what their purpose was and how they were to be offered? The offerings were (if you will excuse the term) a necessary evil. Without sin and disobedience there would be no need for them. God demands total obedience but, since we do sin, we need atonement. And atonement can be achieved only through the shedding of blood.

If it was hazardous to be a High Priest in ancient Israel, being a king was also a dangerous occupation. With privilege comes responsibility. To whom much is given, much is required. And Saul fell short of what was required of kings. The Haftarah provides a link not only with the Torah but with Purim. And Purim teaches that it is dangerous to be a Jew and, even more so to be an enemy of the Jews.

Because of his disobedience, Saul was rejected as king of Israel. But no man – especially a leader – is an island. Saul’s disobedience had repercussions on the nation half a millennium later when a descendant of Agag clashed with a relative of Saul and set in motion a plot to kill every Jew in the Persian Empire. Israel was in exile because of their disobedience and rebellion and the table was turning. Saul failed to wipe out the Amalekites and now an Amalekite was planning to wipe out Israel. But though it is hazardous to be a Jew because of the privileges the Jews have been granted, they remain the people of God in spite of their failures.

I am a Gentile but at Purim I rejoice with the Jewish people (I ought to add that I don’t dress up or get shickered!) because if the Haman’s plan had succeeded the world would be without hope. God promised Abraham that he would bless the nations through Abraham and his descendants; one of them in particular. If the Jewish people had been exterminated at the time of Esther the Messiah could not have come. And if the Messiah had not come, Israel and the nations could not be blessed. And without God’s blessing, the world would remain under his curse.

Thank God for Purim!

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