Torah from T’ruah: Parashat Tzav

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I was honored to write the weekly d’var Torah for T’ruah, an organization dedicated to connecting Jewish tradition and the issue of universal human rights. Here it is on the T’ruah website. I’ve put it below as well.

Torah from T’ruah: Tzav

A few weeks ago I sat in a hearing room of the Washington State House Judiciary Committee. I was there to testify on behalf of a coalition of interfaith and Jewish groups for passage of a bill that would hopefully limit gun violence in my state.

The bill would create an “extreme risk protection order,” which would allow individuals and families to petition a judge, after due process, to order law enforcement to remove guns from a person at high risk for hurting him/herself or others because of mental illness, substance abuse or threatening behavior. This provides another tool to protect families and communities from the scourge of gun violence.

I was there to make the moral argument that anything we can do to protect the lives of individuals—a fundamental human right—was necessary and rooted in sacred teachings. And although the voters passed by initiative universal background checks on gun purchases, this bill died in committee and never made it to the floor of the Legislature.

While my testimony was meant to provide an ethical framework for the bill, the most compelling testimony came from those whose lives were impacted by gun violence. One woman, seriously wounded at a shooting at the offices of the Jewish Federation of Greater Seattle, shared how her attacker, despite issues of mental illness, was allowed to purchase a handgun. Another woman broke down talking about how she found her daughter, who had struggled with depression, after she had committed suicide. Previously, when she learned her daughter had purchased a gun, she contacted the police, who could do nothing more than check up on her.

These stories were powerful; their voices trembled with emotion. They said more than any fact or figure or quote from Scripture ever could.

Parashat Tzav, which we read this week, brings us deep into the esoteric nature of the ancient Tabernacle ritual. Most interestingly, Aaron is ordained into the High Priesthood by his brother Moses through an elaborate blood ritual. Aaron is now charged with the maintenance of the sacrificial cult.

The words may say much, but in this case, the sounds say even more. When the Torah is read in the synagogue each week, it is chanted using a system of trope (cantillation) marks. The trope is meant to not only break up the verses, but to augment the meaning—fitting for a text that was originally oral. Parashat Tzav is one of only four parshiyot which contain the trope (cantillation) mark shalshelet.

Shalshelet is quite rare and fancy as far as trope marks go—you can hear it here. It is found in our portion in Leviticus 8:22-23: “[Moses] brought forward the second ram, the ram of ordination. Aaron and his sons laid their hands upon the ram’s head, and it was slaughtered. Moses took some of the its blood and put it on the ridge of Aaron’s right ear, and on the thumb of his right hand, and on the big toe of his right foot.” The shalshelet is on the word “slaughtered.”

Why the rare trope here? We know that slaughtering is commonplace. But what makes this slaughter stand out is that it is the ram of ordination, the ram that symbolizes the transfer of power from Moses to Aaron. The shalshelet, with its long drawn out notes (almost 30!) adds a sense of hesitancy to what Moses is about to do. And while some may say he is reluctant to turn over his power to Aaron, perhaps he is simply overcome with the enormity of the moment. He knows what he must do, and when he does so, the voice of Torah trembles with emotion.

This plays out in the three other places we find shalshelet in the Torah. In Genesis 19:16, it is found when Lot “lingered” in Sodom before it was about to be destroyed. In Genesis 24:12, it is on the word “spoke,” when Abraham’s servant offered up a prayer before trying to find a wife for Isaac. In Genesis 39:8, it is on the word “refused,” when Joseph resists the advances of Potiphar’s wife. In each of these cases, we can understand that while Lot, the servant, and Joseph know what they must do, they hesitate, they too are overcome with the enormity of the moment; again the Torah trembles with emotion. But ultimately they make the right choice, ultimately they do what they are called upon to do.

The fight for human rights is not easy. The road may be long and the challenges great. We may, in the face of doing what is right, hesitate and feel overcome. Our voices may tremble with emotion. Parashat Tzav, with its rare shalshelet, teaches us that this is a normal response. The key is, when fighting for human rights, to keep fighting despite that initial hesitation.

The shalshelet teaches that it is necessary, as the activist Maggie Kuhn said, “to speak your mind, even if your voice shakes.”

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