27 Mar Tzav: Widening the Circle
Last Shabbat we read a catalogue of sacrificial offerings that an Israelite might bring to the priests. It was they who were to perform the ritual in the holy space – first, as told in the Torah, in the mishkan, or tabernacle in the desert, and with time, in the temples dedicated to Lord, God of Israel, and finally in the one Temple in Jerusalem. This catalogue was arranged from most expensive to least expensive: Cow, sheep/goat, birds and grain offering. As if to say, while the book of Leviticus is most impressed with the large sacrifices, it was also recognized that many could only afford a small measurement of grain.
But there was another form of offering, even more modest, hinted at in this week’s Torah reading:
The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out: every morning the priest shall feed wood to it, lay out the burnt offering on it, and turn into smoke the fat parts of the offerings of well-being. A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out. (Lev. 7:5-6)
Just think of how much wood would have been needed for this! And in fact, there are a number of literary sources from the Second Temple period which discuss this matter. A long list of family contributions to the temple service, based upon drawing lots, in the book of Nehemiah (10:35, 13:31), talks of wood brought at regular intervals for the purpose of the constant fire upon the altar. This tradition of specific families bringing wood seems to have continued for hundreds of years, as is seen in the Mishnah (Ta’anit 4:5) and in the writings of Josephus (Wars 2:430). Talmudic literature seems to feel that this was a mitzvah reserved just for certain families.
However, there is another view held at the time, one that has surfaced with the discovery of the Dead Seas Scrolls. The Jews living in Qumran during the final centuries of the Second Temple felt that keeping the fire on the altar burning should be an opportunity for the entire nation to participate in what was going on in the Temple in Jerusalem. This comes out in particular in what is known as the Temple Scroll, in which each of the tribes – not just particular families – were assigned to one of the six days of this Feast of the Wood Offering (cf. Yigael Yadin, The Temple Scroll, 1977, Introduction, p.122-131). This approach widened the circle of participation, with those, no matter how poor, had a role to play by collecting twigs and branches from the countryside and bringing them up to the Holy Mountain. How empowering!
A midrashic tradition (Leviticus Rabbah 7:6) that explains why all wood was “kosher” for this purpose, except for that coming from grapes and olives. This is out of respect for those two fruits that play such an important part in the Temple ritual. But I would like to offer a slightly different take on this, in light of what we have learned from the Qumran tradition. These two “contributors” – olives and grapes have their rightful place in the ritual and get to do enough. It is not out of respect, but a desire to allow other species their own part to play!
The custom of keeping the fire on the altar burning – even when there is nothing particular that needs to be burnt – is known from other ancient cultures as well (Milgrom, Leviticus, p. 389), and in fact this custom seems to reflect a genuine human need. Another human need is to be part of something bigger that themselves, part of the circle. How might all of us get more people involved, regardless of their wealth, status and acquired skills? How might we widen the circle?