Ritual and Meditation: Fun with Parshat Tzav

Ritual and Meditation: Fun with Parshat Tzav

A father and daughter share the ritual of Torah reading at her bat mitzvah ceremony. Ritual.

Last week’s Torah (Parshat Tzav) and haftorah (Jeremiah) readings were all over it. 

Ritual in Parshat Tzav (Lev. 6:1-8:36)

The Hebrew word tzav means, “instruct.” Here, God tells Moses to instruct Aaron and his sons, the future priests. Teach them, God says, some ritual details the public doesn’t really need to know about. Like: make sure to wear ceremonial dress when you burn an offering. But, afterwards, change into something else. Maybe a tee shirt and jeans. Or some coveralls. Then, bring the ashes to the special ash dump. Afterwards, come back to the mishkan (the sanctuary). Put on your priestly garb, and facilitate some more ceremonies.

But Parshat Tzav also highlights a specific ceremony. Today, in the Torah’s storyline, Aaron and his sons are installed as priests.

Why Parshat Tzav is a High Point

And we, as readers, know it’s been a long time coming. First, we read about God’s design for the mishkan and the priestly clothing. Way back when God first explained it to Moses. And again, when Moses explained it to the people. Yet again, when the people donated their wool, gold, jewels, time and creativity to start the work. Next, when the Levites wrote up the project for the official records. And, finally, when Moses supervised its completion. (That’s five times!)

By now, we are really clear about what the mishkan is. And we understand, that when the priests get dressed for work, they’re wearing the entire community. So, when we watch Moses dress them for the very first time, we feel we’ve reached a peak. The long slow plot buildup is finally getting somewhere.

Ritual: A Definition and A Caution from Jeremiah (7:21-8:3; 9:22-23)

Intuitively, we understand Lawrence Hoffman’s definition of ritual. A ritual is a set of familiar actions. You do them in an order that builds to a meaningful high point. And you understand the high point because you know what the symbols mean. Not because you can quote their dictionary definitions. But because you’ve seen, heard and done them many times. So, you care about them. You feel into them.

But — says the prophet Jeremiah — don’t get too excited about ritual. Because symbols are only symbols.  The whole mishkan thing is great, Jeremiah says. But was it the first thing God taught the Israelites after the Exodus from Egypt? No. It was not. Actually, the first thing God taught was, “I am.” The whole point is to be constantly aware of the presence of God. Especially in the form of love, justice, and goodness.

As a teacher of ritual, I (Laura) want everyone to understand this. Both the definition and the caution. So, at synagogue this Shabbat, I taught about them. Or Shalom Synagogue is known for its creative rituals. So, I wove the teachings into the Torah service.

First Aliyah: Ritual Steps to a High Point

An aliyah (ascent) is a special synagogue honour. Usually, one person at a time is honoured. The leader calls their name and invites them to come forward. They stand close to the Torah scroll. Before and after the reader chants, they say a prayer. Finally, the leader blesses them.

But today, instead of calling on a specific individual, I issued a general invitation.

We’re almost 3 months into the year 2019. Maybe, when the year began, you made some simple New Year’s resolutions. Maybe you resolved to exercise more, or procrastinate less, or be kind to a difficult relative. Today is a good time for your first quarterly assessment. Did you arise and actualize? If you did, then this aliyah is for you.

After the reading, I brought out a bag of lagniappe bead necklaces. And I said: 

Today, you’ll each receive your blessing in a special way. Here’s the instruction. I will say a sentence. The congregation will repeat it. Then, you’ll do it!

[Name,] please step forward. (Please step forward!) 

Open your hand. (Open your hand!) 

Please accept the necklace. (Accept the necklace!) 

Then, put it on. (Put it on!) 

Yasher Koach — May your strength grow! (Yasher Koach!)

You have actualized your resolution! (You have actualized!)

Familiar steps, shared symbols, a high point. Quickly, we felt the power of this simple ritual!

Second Aliyah: Ritual Meditation for God’s Presence

Again, I issued a general invitation.

Do you ever feel that someone has slighted you? That they ignored your suggestion? Underestimated your power? Failed to acknowledge your financial donation? And do you ever respond with an an inner rant, “But I’m so smart, so well-connected, so generous”? And then do you interrupt your own thoughts, because your self-congratulation embarrasses you? Do you want to learn the prophet Jeremiah’s secret mantra for stopping those thoughts? Then, this aliyah is for you.

After the reading, I said:

Your blessing will be the revelation of Jeremiah’s mantra, found in today’s reading. When intrusive, self-aggrandizing thoughts appear, answer them this way. I am God, who brings love, justice, and equity into the world. Or simply whisper the short version. Love, justice, equity.”

I don’t know if anyone will try this at home. But I hope they do. Because I know from my own experience: if you keep using the mantra, it becomes a ritual. And then its power continues to grow.


Want to know more about group aliyot? Visit Or Shalom! Our Rabbi Hannah Dresner also crafts them wonderfully, week after week. 

  1. Shalom Rabbi Laura,
    The one Shabbat morning service we attended at Sophia St. , the Torah reading was from the Parshah with Jacob’s dream. As you did for Tsav, before each aliyah you made a statement or asked a question told us if we identify with what u said then the aliyah is for us. This process was meaningful to me because I looked closely at what identified with. My hunch is that the divine attributes of ahavah, chesed, rachamim…were given to God by human beings,. Please comment on this.

  2. Rabbi Laura,

    I was there when you presented your new “ritual” to the Or Shalom congregation. Nice.

    The following comment is more on Avi’s presentation than yours. It concerns the seemingly problematic fact that the priestly robs are worn to the dump site.

    I think the assumption that blood and ash on the priestly robs “soiled” them. That was taken as a given by Avi, but I think it was a projection of our contemporary understand of what it would mean to have blood or ash on one’s clothing. I think the Torah text makes a strong case for the ash and blood sanctifying rather than contaminating the clothing. I can flesh out (no pun) my reasoning here, if you so wish.

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