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Tzav 5782    March 19, 2022

Rabbi Randall J. Konigsburg

Shabbat Shalom

      I am having my doubts about self-driving cars. My current car is already telling me what I should do when I am driving. It is one thing to let me know that a door is open. But my car tells me when something is too close to my car. It tells me when it thinks I am too close to the car in front of me. It tells me when there is a car in my blind spot. It tells me when I am backing up if there is something moving toward me from behind. It tells me when I am drifting from my lane, and it yells at me to BRAKE when another car is way too close.

     I am a pretty careful driver, but you never know when in a moment of distraction something can change while driving. There are times when I think the car is “nagging” me about every little thing but sometimes I am grateful that it is there, watching over my driving.

     A number of commentators pick up on something in our parsha this week. Most of Parshat Tzav is about how a priest is supposed to handle a sacrifice brought by the public to the Mishkan. Last Shabbat we read about what kinds of things should prompt us to bring a sacrifice. This week, it tells the priest what to do when someone brings each kind of sacrifice. In many ways it is mostly a repeat of what we had last week. But one of the unique passages in our parsha is where it tells the priests that the fire on the altar should never be allowed to go out. It must burn continually.

     And it did burn continually; for hundreds of years that fire never when out. That original flame, first lit by God when the Mishkan was dedicated, that fire was carried all the years in the desert and eventually lit the altar of Solomon in the Temple he constructed in Jerusalem, and it only went out when Nebuchadnezzar destroyed the Temple in 586 BCE. Clearly the priests took this Mitzvah seriously.

     The only real issue the priests had with this commandment was when there was a slow day at the Temple. When there were lots of sacrifices being brought, they had many opportunities to burn the sacrifice and keep the fire going. But on a slow day, they might actually have to add some wood to keep the fire going.

     According to the Talmud, in Massecht Shekalim, when there were no sacrifices that needed to be offered on the altar, animals that were purchased from the Temple’s public funds would be used to sacrifice and thus keep the fires burning. But can a sacrifice that is not needed, that is not something that has been designated to be for a purpose, really be a sacrifice? The issue here seems to be that when a sacrifice was not for a specific family, the animal would be placed on the altar as if it were a spiritual place holder. The priests used it, perhaps, to proclaim that even when an animal had not been designated, the priests were so devoted to God that they would continue to keep the fires burning so they could be ready when a required sacrifice would next come along.

     Now I understand that this all seems esoteric. We don’t sacrifice animals anymore. What has this perpetual Bar-B-Que flame have to do with our spirituality? Ilana Kurshan, writing this week for the Fuchsberg Center’s parsha of the week, made an important point. If the purpose of a sacrifice was to make us feel closer to God, then we have to ask ourselves what is there, in our lives, that makes us feel closer to God? This leads us to a second question that is even more important. What happens when we are not feeling very close to God? Do we just go on with the ordinary duties of life until the spirit moves us again? What is being taught here is that we need to sometimes do our spiritual exercises even if we are not feeling especially spiritual, so that when we do regain our feelings of closeness with God, we will still know what we can do to demonstrate our commitment to God.

     My car may have many safety devices that ring, buzz or flash on the screen to keep me out of trouble on the road. The fact is, I am a pretty safe driver, and I don’t really need them. The many sensors are good, but I still check my mirrors and look back when I am driving. I know it is very “old school”, but I am still glad that there are these many safety features in my car and that should I need one, I know it could save my life.

     The same idea applies to our spiritual life as well. For example, ask a person who attends daily minyan how they can feel close to God every morning and/or every evening? Don’t they get distracted and sometimes feel far away from God? The answer is, of course they do! It is impossible to be spiritual all the time. Just as it is impossible to drive a car and not be distracted from time to time. People come to synagogue for many different reasons, so that no matter when they attend, there is always something we get out of our time at the synagogue. If there is a day we don’t feel close to God, we can still be in shul and be with our friends. We can still look at our Siddur and our Humash and learn something new. We can always spend some extra time on a prayer we like or on a prayer we don’t know very well and try and understand it in a deeper way. When the day comes and we feel the need to be closer to God again, we have a deeper understanding of God, prayer, and relationships to help us reach a higher spiritual place.

     There are also people who have other ways of drawing closer to God. Think about the people who are part of the “Daf Yomi” program, learning a page of Talmud every day for over seven years in order to read through the entire Talmud and learn more of what it has to say about the way God would have us live our lives. Think about the people who read the Parsha every week, or a chapter of Bible every day. They too are seeking to be closer to God by trying to understand what God is trying to teach us.

     Of course, there are days when we are too tired to study our daf of Talmud. Or too distracted to read a bible passage or even too busy to look at the parsha. Sometimes the spiritual drive is just not there. Sometimes we can’t connect to what is on the page in front of us. (Like this week, with Parshat Tzav – it’s details of sacrifices may not be exactly what we might want to read this week). Still, we read on, we study on, knowing that these feelings will pass, and we will be ready again, perhaps even better prepared, when next we feel closely connected to God.

     Ilana Kurshan writes, Our parashah teaches us that in those moments when we don’t feel we have anything to offer, we offer nonetheless. We take from the leftover funds, the habits and disciplines we have already cultivated, because they enable us to keep the fire burning. If we are fortunate, the sacrifices that come merely from the “leftover funds” inside us will eventually combust into an offering of wholeness, and we will recognize that the light of the divine presence continues to burn within us.”

     Our minds are a wonderful part of our existence. It helps us understand the world better by making sense of what we experience all around us. Sometimes what we see, hear, and feel touch us in a way that goes far beyond our senses. Sometimes, through our senses we find a deeper connection to God. But sometimes we are too distracted and busy to find the deeper meaning of what is around us. It is in these times that our memory of what we have experienced in the past and our ritual habits, keep us spiritually fit until we become motivated to find God again. Our rituals are our sacred safety systems, to keep us on the road until our distractions pass.

     The students of my weekly Bible class know that not every chapter we study has deep meaning and important ideas to flesh out. But using the tools of bible study, the knowledge that every verse has a meaning and a lesson to teach us, we can move past the lessons that don’t motivate us today and soon we will find the deep spiritual messages of the Torah again. And who knows, someday, sometime in the future, we will recall the passages that were not so interesting before, and suddenly see them in a new light, with a new understanding and we will gain another important piece of the spiritual puzzle we try to assemble in our lives.

     How we live each day is up to us to determine. Where we find spirituality in our lives is for us to discover. Our path may not be the same as the path of someone else. Today Parshat Tzav may seem like a futile exercise. But we study it anyway and perhaps there will come a day in the future when we find a place for sacrifices in our spiritual world. In the meantime, we know that there are spiritual moments in our lives, and we must stay ready to experience them, to understand them and then let those moments bring us closer to God.

     God willing, I will never need the seatbelt in my car. God willing the airbags in my car will never deploy. But there is for me a great calm and peace that come knowing that should they ever be needed, that they will be there to save my life.

     I am not happy when I feel estranged from God’s presence. It is hard when all I really need to do for the day is to catch up on my email and listen to another podcast. It is hard on the days when God does not call me to be there to make a difference in the world. And yet, I have learned over the years, that what I read, what I listen to, what I experience in the world, even if it is not a life changing moment, will still be there when I will need it to make a difference in the world. One final example, I read a lot about the Parsha each week, looking for lessons for my own life and for lessons that I can share with all of you. In the middle of long rabbinic excurses on how the Priest would sacrifice an animal, I found in Ilana Kurshan, a spiritual gem. And when I found it, I knew it was the right lesson for this moment.

     May God always keep us ready to be surprised by God, to study and to patiently wait in our life so when we find that gem that will make all the difference, we will recognize it for the spiritual value is has and make it a vital part of our spiritual life. May it help bring us closer to each other, closer to finding meaning in life and closer to God as we say….

     Amen and Shabbat Shalom

Sun, October 1 2023 16 Tishrei 5784