Parashat Tzav

כי לא דברתי אל אבותיכם  ולא צויתים ביום הוציאי אותם מארץ מצרים על דברי עולה וזבח: אינני כאלהי העמים, אשר לפי מחשבת עובדיהם אינם מבקשים רק כבוד עצמם, עולות וזבחים וכיוצא בהם. אך אני מבקש מבני אדם שיעשו רצוני לטוב להם, וישמרו מצותי אשר יעשה אותן האדם וחי בהם. על כן, לא היתה תחלת מצוֹתַי לאבותיכם על דברי עולה וזבח, אלא: תחלה צויתים עשרת הדברות, ואחר כך המשפטים בין איש ובין רעהו לתקון החברה, ואחר כך אמרתי שיעשו לי מקדש ויקריבו לי קרבנות. והנה כשאינכם שומרים משפטי, גם זבחיכם לא לרצון.

For I did not speak to your fathers, and I did not command them on the day I took them out of Egypt on the matters of elevation and feast offerings — I am not like the gods of nations, who, according the the imaginings of their worshippers, desire only personal glory, elevation and feast offerings and the like. Rather I request that people do my will for their personal benefit. They should guard my commandments and thereby gain life by them. Therefore, the first of my commandments to your fathers was not offerings, but the Ten Commandments, and after that laws between person and fellow to repair the community. Only after that, did I command to build me a sanctuary and offer me sacrifices. Behold! Since you did not safeguard my statutes, I do not want your sacrifices either. — Shadal on Yirmiyah 7:22

This year presents a somewhat unique opportunity. In most years Parashat Tzav either falls during one of the four special Parshiot around Adar or it falls the week before Pesah, when the normal haftara would be substituted for a special one. But in this year, Tzav falls during an off-week, in between the two special readings, and we get the rare chance to discuss the haftara.

The haftara appears to overturn everything. For the last 7 weeks, the Torah has primarily discussed sacrifices and the Temple, but in the opening two verses, the prophet Yirmiyahu appears to say it is all worthless. In the first verse, he says one may as well profane their elevation offering and eat it, because it doesn’t matter anyway. In the next, he claims that Gd never actually commanded sacrifices in the first place. This bold statement appears to directly contradict the parsha, which, after all, opens by commanding sacrifices. What does Yirmiyahu mean by this?

There’s a lot of dispute over what exactly is meant. According to Rambam and those who follow his school of thought like Radak and Sforno, the sacrifices and Mikdash were never Gd’s first recourse. They were only given as a crutch to wean the people off idol worship and give them a focus for their worship of Him. According to others, like Ramban and Shadal, the Temple and sacrifices do have value in themselves, but they only have value if they are used to reinforce living a Gdly life. Shadal points that out eloquently here. It’s not that Gd does not value the sacrifices and Israel’s relationship with Him. It’s that his primary focus for taking the Jews out of Egypt was not to have a people that adored him and feted him. It was to create a Gdly people that would advance morality in the world for the benefit of Humanity. Therefore the laws that were first emphasized were those that pointed to the singularity and perfection of the Creator, something he felt formed the basis for a universal moral code, and the laws between person and fellow, which would lead to the establishment of justice. Only the worship from a just and moral society is desirable, so the sacrifices have to wait until the foundations of justice are laid. Without those foundations, there’s no point to the sacrifices. Indeed as the prophet goes on to say, sacrifices do not substitute for lack of ethical behavior or the refusing to heed instruction.

But whether a Temple and sacrifices are only a crutch or independently valued as part of a relationship with Gd founded on justice and righteousness, the connection to the parasha is clear. But what interests me more is the second half of the haftara starting at verse 29, where the prophet excoriates the people oven human sacrifice. Why is that included in the haftara? What relevance does excoriating human sacrifice have for us reading the parsha? Why not cut off the hafatara earlier? We know that the extra verses are not to pad the haftara, because even with them, the haftara is still shorter than the Gemara’s proscribed minimum of 21 verses. In fact, it is from this very haftara that the Gemara learns the principle that a haftara can be less than 21 verses, but only if it ends at the completion of a thought. If the haftara needed padding, why not also continue with the next section of Yirmiyahu, and if it needed to be a complete thought, why have the second section? Just have the first, which is the part that connects with the parasha and seems to also be a complete thought.

This bugged me a lot. Doing research, I found that indeed there were communities whose haftara was only the first eight verses. This custom even makes it into the Abudarham. Perhaps, in the time of the Gemara these eight verse were their haftara, and they also considered that a complete thought.

But I think I also understand now why the prevailing custom is the way it is and what the verses decrying human sacrifice are teaching. There are several ways one might distance themselves from Gd and disobey His teachings. One might simply be apathetic or busy, having no time for the Torah and its values. The additional verses in the haftara is teaching us that this is not the problem here. The people in Yirmiyahu’s time were not apathetic about spirituality. It takes a large amount of religious enthusiasm to decide to sacrifice one’s own children for the cause. But blind religious zealotry is no more desirable than apathy. In fact it is worse, leading to unimagined cruelty and depravity.

The people had the heart for spirituality, but they did not have the desire to perfect themselves. Sacrifices, whether animals to Gd or children to spirits and demons, became an out to feel spiritual without becoming better people. Rashi discusses the pomp and ceremony involved in honoring the people who engaged in these disgusting practices. No doubt that was part of the draw. It’s a way to show how religious and spiritually engaged one is without having to improve oneself. Paradoxically, it is easier to give up one’s children than it is to try to become a better person.

The haftara concludes with two later verses in Yirmiyahu appended to the end, so as not to finish on a bad note. These verses express the idea that there is only one way to advance religiously, to know Gd, the Gd who does kindness, justice, and righteousness. One comes to know him by imitation of those actions. When sacrifices are used to further connection to the Gd of justice and righteousness, they are a net positive. When they or other religious impulses become sidetracked from that goal, Yirmiyahu is right about their worthlessness.

Thank Gd, today we do not suffer from the problem of child sacrifice. But we do often deviate from what is just in the name of religion. We have many practices that make us feel more religious in the short term that cause harm to our society and to our children in the long term. As we conclude, for now, our discussion of sacrifices, we need to ask ourselves whether our actions are making sacrifices we don’t intend.