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Vayikra - Tzav

Tzav, which falls this year on Shabbat haGadol, continues the foray into the world of sanctuary rites and rules that characterise Vayikra. While the book of Vayikra can be bemusing or off-putting to the modern reader, the thoughts that follow aim to help us relate aspects of this sedra to our lives, and particularly to the unsettling times we’re living through in 2020.

The pinnacle of this week’s sedra is the inauguration of Aaron and his sons as priests in the Tabernacle.

These men - the first ever Cohanim - are to be “washed in water” (Leviticus 8:6), the second reference in the Torah to the practice which became mikveh. In some ways, this sedra contains the foundations of the entire concept of tumah and tahara - terms usually translated as impurity and purity (I prefer the less negative terms “spiritual un-readiness” and “spiritual readiness”), and concepts that occupy volumes of rabbinic thought.

The system of tumah and tahara is difficult to get one’s head around - tumah is an invisible status, highly contagious and caught by physical contact. It is connected to physical impurity (associated with, for example, a dead body, menstruation, skin disease) yet also takes on a spiritual dimension, meaning its carrier cannot take part in ritual practice.

Tumah and tahara really are hard to understand as a modern. At Pardes, fellow students explained it as “cooties”, a bit like the UK “lurgy” - something you catch and can pass on, invisible, but nevertheless a problem.

In some ways, the past few weeks have helped me connect with Biblical and Rabbinic ideas of tumah and tahara more than ever before. Our hyper-awareness about what we touch and who we’re in contact with, the food we eat and its provenance - all this is reminiscent of the system of tumah and tahara.

Mikveh, however, is the reset button for tumah. Dip in the mikveh after the requisite time and your tumah disappears. And in these times, handwashing serves as a comparable, albeit mini-reset - just don’t come into contact with more suspect surfaces and your hands are OK.

The parallels fall short (particularly considering compelling arguments like that of Professor Benjamin D. Sommer that tumah has a neutral rather than negative status) but the complexity and realness of the tumah and tahara system is really brought home, along with the necessity of obsession, and the dilemmas which come with it.

Let’s take a look at one more aspect of Tzav that strikes a chord with these times. The entire book of Vayikra takes place over just eight days, seven of which are in this sedra (compare to Bereishit which spans more than 2000 years!) For these seven days, Aaron and his sons are told:

You shall not go outside the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day that your period of ordination is completed. For your ordination will require seven days. (Leviticus 8:33)

It was, if you will, a seven day quarantine, in which the new priests atoned, completely apart from the world, in order to attain their new spiritual position. A little like today, the rabbis grapple with the practicalities. Ibn Ezra writes:

Some people say that they did not leave for seven days , but that during the night they used to leave to tend to their personal necessities.... Scripture means only to say that they should not concern themselves with other business, and that they should not take walks to any other places.

The function of this quarantine is, to most of the commentators, spiritual preparation. Rabbeinu Bahya, the 13th century Spanish commentator, has a beautiful and sobering reading, comparing this time to the seven days of shiva. For those who are interested, do take a look.

Most of what is described in Tzav ceased to exist with the destruction of the Temple. No more offerings, no priestly rituals or inauguration ceremonies. The exception, which continues to be a powerful part of Jewish practice is mikveh. Mikveh today continues to transverse the physical and spiritual, allowing a reset in the course of a variety of lifecycle moments. Projects like Mayyim Hayyim and the Mikveh Project UK are flying the flag for inviting all to use this ritual as a powerful spiritual tool.

So Tzav, at least to my mind, brings much resonance today. I hope that we can take its messages of washing as a powerful, necessary act and of quarantine as bearing spiritual fruits, into the week ahead.


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