Parashat Tzav, Shabbat Hagadol
March 27, 2021 | 14 Nissan 5781
Torah: Leviticus 6:1-8:36; Triennial 7:11-38
Haftorah: Malakhi 3:4-24
In this week's Torah Sparks, you'll find a Dvar Torah on Parashat Tzav by Ilana Kurshan called "A Tremulous Hesitation". Vered Hollander-Goldfarb poses questions titled "Who said There Were Ten Plagues?". And Bex Stern Rosenblatt writes about "Passing Generations" in the Haftorah.
A Tremulous Hesitation
Ilana Kurshan

In this week’s parsha, God instructs Moshe to invest Aaron and his sons with the priesthood, a seven-day induction ceremony that involves sacrifice, sprinkled oil, and sacred garments. Moshe is instructed to wash and dress Aaron’s sons, to anoint them with oil, and to sacrifice two rams – one as a burnt offering, and one as a ram of ordination. The Torah’s description of Moshe’s sacrifice of this second ram—the ram that will serve to ordain Aaron and his sons—is marked by a Shalshelet, an unusually long and tremulous cantillation note that appears in only four places in the Torah. The Shalshelet is generally understood as signifying hesitation and ambivalence – it appears when Lot hesitates before fleeing Sodom (Gen. 19:16), and when Eliezer pauses outside of Haran to ask for God’s help in choosing a bride for Isaac (Gen. 24:12), and when Joseph struggles to refuse the overtures of Potiphar’s wife (Gen. 39:8). What, then, is Moshe’s ambivalence when it comes to slaughtering the ram of ordination, and what does it have to do with the approaching holiday of Pesach? 

The Tanchuma (Shmini 3) explains that Moshe expected to become the high priest, and was disappointed to have to surrender this role to his brother. Perhaps the use of the Shalshelet in our parsha, then, serves to give voice to Moshe’s hesitation and ambivalence. He sacrifices the ram of ordination as God commands him, but he does so with a heavy heart. Moshe wishes that he could take on this role himself. After all, until this point, he has been the sole intermediary between God and the people: It was he who communicated God’s instructions regarding the Exodus, and he who channeled the divine spirit so that the people would defeat Amalek in battle, and it was he who went up on Sinai to receive the Torah. Moreover, it was Moshe who received all the instructions from God regarding the building of the Mishkan; God told him the precise details of how to construct each and every pole and peg and curtain. Why should his brother now serve in the Tabernacle whose construction he so thoroughly and painstakingly oversaw?

The Talmud (Zevachim 102a) links this moment of tremulous hesitation in our parsha to another moment of hesitation that took place at the very beginning of Moshe’s career, at the burning bush. When God charged Moshe to lead the Israelites out of Egypt, Moshe was initially reluctant to take on this role: “Please, O Lord, make someone else Your agent” (Ex. 4:13). God is none too pleased: “The Lord became angry with Moshe and He said: ‘There is your brother Aaron the Levite. He, I know, speaks readily” (Ex. 4:14). The Talmudic sage Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai questions why Aaron is referred to as a Levite, since he will become a priest. He explains that God had initially intended for Moshe to be the priest and Aaron to be the Levite; but now that Moshe has angered God with his reluctance to lead the people, he will be the Levite and Aaron will be the priest. Since Moshe hesitated at the burning bush—when he was invested by God with his leadership role in what was essentially his own induction ceremony—he will now have to induct Aaron into the priesthood in his stead.

That moment when Moshe hesitates just before slaughtering the ram of ordination hearkens back to the burning bush, but it also hearkens forward to another moment of ambivalence at the end of Moshe’s life, when he stands at the summit of Pisgah and gazes out at the promised land. Moshe knows that the time of his death is approaching, but he is not yet ready to let go. The role he has retained is not one he can yet relinquish. He hesitates at Pisgah, holding on momentarily to a future that will not be his. Just as Moshe builds the Mishkan but does not merit serving in it, he also leads the people through the wilderness to the land of Israel, but does not merit entering it. This is the great tragedy of Moshe’s life – he is fated to lay the groundwork for a reality that he himself does not merit experiencing. It is not he, but his brother Aaron, who will enter the Holy of Holies on Yom Kippur and atone for the sins of the people. And it is not he, but his successor Joshua, who will enter the promised land and lead the Israelites in their conquest.

In spite of his centrality to the Pesach story, Moshe is famously absent from the Haggadah. Just as his role as a leader was to set the stage and then retreat from it, his literary legacy in the text of the Seder is also one of absence. And yet this absence is not just a tragedy, but also a triumph, because in a sense Moshe is imitating God, who created the world and then retreated from it, entrusting the world to human hands. Perhaps Moshe merits being called a “man of God” (Deut. 33:1) at the end of his life because he learns from God that a great leader is judged not by the role he plays on center stage, but by the scenes that unfold once he has withdrawn into the wings. Moshe, in providing the people with the laws and teachings that would govern their lives, paved the way for those who come after him. His memory is not emblazoned with memorials or testimonials, and no one knows where he is buried, but no matter – he has left us with the legacy of his Torah, which bears record not just of his hesitation, but also of his enduring hold.
Who said There Were Ten Plagues?
Vered Hollander-Goldfarb

The story of the Exodus from Egypt is referred to many times in the Tanakh. While some are just brief hints, Psalm 78 retells a version of the story, forming an internal Midrash on the Torah story told in the Haggadah. Let’s compare the plagues:

Text: Haggadah of Pesach

These are the ten plagues that the Holy One, blessed-be-He brought against the Egyptians in Egypt, and they are as follows:
Blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, plague of the livestock, boils, hail, locusts, darkness, the death of the firstborn….
  • How would you divide the plagues? Why?
  • In the Haggadah list, what are the positions of the plagues of the livestock and of the death of the firstborn? How do they divide the list? What do they have in common? What deeper meaning do they give us about the plagues?

Text of Psalms 78:42-51 - A Internal Biblical Midrash

40How oft did they rebel against Him in the wilderness,… 42They remembered not His hand, the day when He redeemed them from an adversary. 43When He set His signs in Egypt…; 44And turned their rivers into blood… 45He sent among them wild beast, which devoured them; And frogs, which destroyed them. 46He gave their crops to caterpillars, And their labor to the locust. 47He destroyed their vines with hail, And their sycamore-trees with frost. 48He gave over their cattle to the hail, And their flocks to fiery bolts. 49He sent against them his burning anger, wrath, fury, distress, and messengers of evil. 50He levelled a path for His anger; He spared not their soul from death and gave their livestock over to the plague. 51And He smote all the first-born in Egypt…
  • How many plagues were you able to find here? Compare their descriptions to what appears in Shmot (Exodus) 7-12.
  • Which ones are missing? If you have studied the 10 plagues that appear in Shmot, what do these missing plagues have in common?
  • How could you explain the difference in number of plagues? What might we learn about traditions and narratives?
  • Look at vv.50-51: What heading does the poet give to the two plagues that appear in these verses? How does this explain their relationship in the list in the Haggadah/Torah?
  • And you may notice that v.49 in Psalm 78 stars in the Midrash in the Haggadah that expands the counting of the plagues.  Why do you think that it was chosen?
Passing Generations
Bex Stern Rosenblatt

This year we will once again be missing people at our seder tables. Some of them are but a Zoom call away, with the promise of a real live reunion hanging just around the corner. And some of them have left this world. The Pesach meals we cooked with them, the rituals we learned from them, continue on this year. We take what we have received and pass it forward.

In reading this week’s haftarah for Shabbat HaGadol, we encounter these themes of absence, longing, and the passing of generations. Our haftarah features the last prophet, Malachi. He speaks to a nation that has already seen the Temple destroyed, lost its homeland, been exiled for 70 years, come back to it homeland, built the Second Temple, and begun to lose hope that this second time will be any better. His book is the very last of the Trei Asar, the twelve minor prophets, after the other two post-exilic prophets Haggai and Zechariah. As is said in Tosefta Sotah 8:2, “When the last prophets, Haggai, Zechariah, and Malachi died, the Holy Spirit departed from Israel.”

And yet, standing on the precipice of the disappearance of prophecy, Malachi calls upon his prophetic forbearers to act as guides for the prophet-less future, a future that culminates in a terrible and awesome “Day of the Lord.” Malachi mentions Moses and then Elijah. In mentioning Moses, Malachi closes out the age of prophets with a throwback to the greatest prophet - as we read in Deuteronomy 34:10, “there never arose another prophet like Moses.” But it is not to Moses himself that Malachi refers, but rather to the teaching of Moses, the laws and rules which were passed to Israel. We are to remember these laws. Malachi points us towards what we need to keep moving, positioning himself as one who passed on the teaching passed through Moses. This is a task we too can do.

The next prophet Malachi mentions is Elijah, whom we last saw in II Kings 2, hundreds of years earlier, when he was taken alive up to the heavens in a whirlwind. Elijah comes back with a specific task, described in Malachi 3:24. The verse reads, literally: and he will turn back the heart of fathers to/through/by means of/and children and the heart of children to/through/by means of/and fathers. He is to do something concerning returning the hearts of parents and children, something to do with tshuva. What exactly he is supposed to do is open for debate. Rashi reads the verse as saying that parents and children will both turn back to God, children will cause their parents to turn back and parents will cause their children to turn back. It’s a beautiful idea. Each generation takes up what is right for the sake of the other generation. Ibn Ezra understands the verse as emphasizing the inclusiveness of return, reading: he will return the heart of fathers and children, the heart of children and fathers. Everyone, everyone, is returned. Rabbi Professor Elie Assis offers a third reading: he reads the fathers as God and the children as Israel. In line with many prophetic texts, including other portions of Malachi, the relationship between God and Israel is often portrayed as a parent-child relationship. Here then, God is returning to us and we are returning to God.

As we return again to the Pesach table, aware of those whom we’ve lost this year and the uncertainty ahead, may we look to Elijah’s cup on the table with a sense of hope. May we remember the message Malachi calls Elijah to bring: the return of parents and children, the return of community, the return of relationship with the divine in whichever ways we choose to understand it.
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