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Tzav 5782: The "Facts" of Life

Tzav (Leviticus 6-8 )

by Rabbi Yitzchak Zweig

GOOD MORNING! As Russia’s war on Ukraine enters its fourth week, and Russia’s shocking miscalculations continue to mount, it seems like a good time to examine how we perceive facts and how we go about interpreting them.

The true power of humanity lies in our connection to our emotions; we attempt and accomplish extraordinary things out of love and compassion. Unfortunately, we can also be driven to do incredibly terrible things by blind rage, hate, or jealousy. It is quite remarkable that our perception of what is truly “just” depends so heavily on how we feel about a given situation.

One would hope that we could bring ourselves back to center by focusing on the facts of a situation. However, facts require interpretation and context to be useful and that is where one usually falls victim to confirmation bias. While our intentions are good and we want to believe that our stances are supported by a clear eyed view of the facts, today’s society gets its information from media outlets that skew “facts” to conform to what we already “know.”

To be sure, Russia’s war on Ukraine has the sympathetic story line of David and Goliath. I watched, with no small measure of astonishment, how the world came together in less than a week to unite against Russia and enact crippling economic sanctions. When even Switzerland abandoned their long held policy of “aggressive neutrality” and joined the other European nations aligned against Russia, it seemed like the end of times had arrived.

Many of the stories and images emerging from the war in Ukraine are truly horrific. But how are we, as Jews, supposed to view what is happening there? With some circumspection, I believe. We mustn’t forget that Ukraine has a long and abominable history of terrible antisemitism and pogroms. We mustn’t forget that the Nazis murdered hundreds of thousands of Jews with the help of their Ukrainian neighbors.

Last week, the famous Soviet dissident Nathan Sharansky said the following: “When I grew up in Ukraine in the city of Donetsk, there were people of various nationalities living there. Their ID certificates had the word ‘Russian,’ ‘Ukrainian,’ ‘Georgian,’ ‘Kozaki,’ – it wasn’t important and didn’t make much of a difference. One thing was important – if you had the word ‘Jewish’ written on it that would be as if you had some disease. We knew nothing about Judaism except antisemitism and hatred towards us.”

Several years ago I had the opportunity to travel through Ukraine for about a week. Across much of the country, the sense of antisemitism in the local populace was palpable. The Chabad rabbi in Kiev advised us that it would be wise not to wear a yarmulke (skullcap) in public but to rather wear a hat or a hood over one’s head. 21st century Ukraine was still not safe for Jews.

My point is that we must always keep a healthy perspective and understand that the truth of an object lies in its essence – and we cannot redefine that truth based on an emotional reaction. Though, the one truth that is becoming readily apparent, to me at least, is that Vladimir Putin is destroying two countries.

Some forty years ago I had a life changing experience; it helped me understand the importance of carefully examining a subject for myself – and it is directly related to this week’s Torah portion. This week’s Torah portion is called Tzav and it refers to the appointment of the children of Aaron to the priestly caste known as cohanim.

Hebrew is a holy language. In fact, when referred to as a language by the sages it is rarely called “Ivrit – Hebrew”; it is almost always referenced as “Loshon Hakodesh – the Holy Tongue.” The Hebrew letters are considered the building blocks of creation as God used them when He brought the world into existence through “Ten Utterances.”

This leads to several distinctive qualities not commonly found in other languages. In Hebrew, names are based on a description of the essence of the object. This is why the Hebrew word “davar” is used for both “thing” and for “word.” I have discussed this concept in prior columns.

Another example: Hebrew has a very unique numerical value system for its letters that gives us a deeper understanding of the actual words. In Hebrew, this is called “gematria” – which seems to be derived from the Greek “grammateia,” which means “knowledge of writing.” There are many varieties of numeric assignments to the letters, but the simplest is that the first letter, “aleph” is one, the second letter “beis” is two, and so on.

Perhaps the most well-known example of this is the Hebrew word for life – “chai,” which has a numerical value of 18 (it is comprised of the eighth and tenth letters of the Hebrew alphabet). This is why it is common to give money to charity in multiples of 18. This is based on the verse in Proverbs (11:4) “and charity will save from death.”

The above example is rather simplistic and not really indicative of the depth of the gematria system. A better example would be that the numerical value of the word for love (ahava) is 13. The numerical value for unity (echad) is also 13. This correlates to the truism that love is a merging into a unified entity. There are many, many, other fascinating examples of the depth of the Hebrew language. Here is another one: The Hebrew word for year is “shana” and it has a numerical value of 355 (correlating to the fact that a Hebrew calendar year has 354.25 days in it).

As mentioned, this week’s Torah portion is called Tzav. When I was in ninth grade, my rebbe – Rabbi Moshe Kletenik, pointed out that this week’s portion has 96 verses in it, which corresponds to the numerical value of the Hebrew word Tzav – also 96. Well, being 14 years old, I thought that was just about the coolest thing in the world.

I immediately turned to the end of the Torah reading where the number of verses in each portion is given, and sure enough, right there printed on the page it said that there were 96 verses in the portion of Tzav. I was amazed. But I was also skeptical. So I decided to count the verses for myself. I carefully counted each verse and I came up with the number 97. I counted again – and a third time – and each time came up with 97.

I raised my hand. “Rebbe – I think there is a mistake here. I counted the verses and came up with 97, not 96.” Rabbi Kletenik was not having it. “Rebbe, I counted three times and each time I came up with 97!” In short order Rabbi Kletenik made the whole class count and, sure enough, I was right. What had been accepted as a truism and was in fact printed in every Chumash (Hebrew Bible containing only the Five Books of Moses) was actually a mistake.

This experience changed my life. I learned that you cannot necessarily trust what everyone else has accepted as a truism or even a “fact” printed in a book – carefully examine it for yourself and then make a determination. This lesson led me down a multiyear path of self-discovery and an in-depth examination of Judaism (and other religions) and what I believed. I resolved that I wouldn’t be a Jew merely because I was born into a religious family – I needed to live a life true to what I saw to be real.

During the process of self-discovery, I was able to validate for myself and come to know the truth of the Torah, its value systems, and all that it tells us about life and the world around us. The only unquestioned truth that I accept is the actual word of the Torah. Sure, there are many things that I do not yet understand, but I know that if properly studied I will arrive at the truth.

It’s not dissimilar to knowing that I have no comprehension of thermodynamics and finite element analysis – but I know that if I studied it I could begin to understand it. The truth is out there.

The very last verse of this week’s Torah portion relates that Aaron and his sons performed all procedures as they had been instructed by Moses. The great biblical commentator Rashi (ad loc) makes an unusual comment, “This is to praise them and inform us that they veered neither to the right nor to the left.” Meaning, they did exactly as they were told by Moshe.

Rashi’s interpretation seems a little odd. Typically, Rashi would merely say they did as they were told without altering anything. Why does Rashi take poetic license here and state that they veered neither to the right nor to the left?

Rashi is paraphrasing a verse from Deuteronomy (17:11), “You must keep the Torah as you had been taught and follow the law that they legislate for you, do not stray to the right or to the left.” In other words, the sons of Aaron followed Moses’ instructions knowing that he was relaying to them the words of God. They weren’t supposed to “improve” upon it by incorporating their own stringencies or leniencies.

We too must be careful to find the correct road – and not veer too far to the right or too far to the left. It doesn’t make a difference how we feel about something today because that is temporal. Rather we must stay on the path that the Almighty has laid out for us in the Torah for its truths are unchanging.

Torah Portion of the Week

Tzav, Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36

This week's Torah portion includes the laws of: Burnt Offerings, Meal Offerings, High Priest’s Offerings, Sin Offerings, Guilt Offerings, and Peace Offerings. It concludes with the portions of the Peace Offerings that are allotted to the Priests and the installation ceremony of the Priest for serving in the Sanctuary.

Candle Lighting Times

If you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.
— Albert Einstein

In Honor of Mirna Rogue

by Jorge Arnoldo Raichman



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