Parashat Tzav

By Rabbi Jim Rogozen

Imagine Richard Dreyfuss’s voice in the background as pictures of famous people appear on the television screen…

“Here’s to the crazy ones. The misfits. The rebels. The troublemakers. The round pegs in the square holes. The ones who see things differently. While some may see them as the crazy ones, we see genius. Because the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do.”

Anyone recognize these words?They were part of an Apple Computer ad campaign called “Think Different” launched on September 28 1997. This was the ad campaign that led to one of the greatest corporate turnarounds in history and it continues to play a role in how we think about change.

Jeremiah’s words in today’s Haftarah should have earned him a spot in one of those Apple commercials. After all, Jeremiah went a little bit crazy. He basically claimed that the sacrifices described in this week’s parasha should be set aside. All 97 verses, 1,353 words…wiped out, gone. What did he see?

In Chapter 6, verse 20:

עֹלֽוֹתֵיכֶם֙ לֹ֣א לְרָצ֔וֹן וְזִבְחֵיכֶ֖ם לֹא־עָ֥רְבוּ לִֽי:

“Your burnt offerings are not acceptable, and your sacrifices are not pleasant to Me.”

Judaism’s central, and most public, rituals were being undermined by the paganism and immoral behavior of the people. Jeremiah, and other prophets, pointed out the same thing: In management terms, there was a lack of alignment between the organization’s goals and practices, and the target group. What existed wasn’t working. People weren’t buying in. Jeremiah’s suggestion for change? Drop the program.

Centuries later, when the destruction of the 2nd Temple put an end to sacrifices, it also led to other changes. While they prayed that the Temple would one day be rebuilt, the Rabbis, navigating through their mourning, needed to move on. As a result, the decades following the Destruction were a time of thinking different. It was a time of paradigm shifts: from korbanot to kavanna in prayer, from Hattat sacrifices to Hesed, from Trumah to Torah study.

These were creative and necessary pivots, and the Jewish People embraced them. So much so that when we speak about Judaism we really mean Rabbinic Judaism.

Over a period of 2000+ years, Judaism and the Jewish People have seen minor as well as transformative changes, both in practice and theology. Some changes have been reactive, some have been proactive. Some are complete, and some are still in process.

For instance, in the late 1980s, when the Temple Mount had been in Jewish hands for 20 years, a group of Jews founded the Temple Institute in Jerusalem, and began detailed planning for the 3rd Temple.

At the same exact time, another group suggested deleting all references to sacrifices or changing them to the past tense in what would be the first edition of, wait for it, the Sim Shalom Siddur.

Ahhhh….Jews! It seems that we are the ever hopeful, ever confused People.

Jews opt for a variety of practices and beliefs, some based in Torah and Halakha, some based on family tradition, and some based on a sense of comfort. There are practices and beliefs that work for us, others that don’t. In addition to death and taxes, two things are certain: change happens and change can be hard.

Even more so now. We are living through a time of transition, one that Klaus Schwab, Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum, calls the Fourth Industrial Revolution. When it comes to organizations and companies, the common belief is that if you aren’t actively innovating, or “thinking different,” you’re dying.

The vocabulary of change sounds like this: lab, hack, design, catalyst, startup, jumpstart, transformation, digital leapfrogs, makers, boundary spanner, futurist, disruptive, accelerator, or just the letter “X” in the name of an organization.

The speed and volume of change make our heads spin. To make matters worse, Jewish population surveys are adding to this sense of urgency with predictions of gloom and doom. “Jews are abandoning Jewish life. The model is broken. Throw everything overboard. We need to start over.”

Change for survival, rather than change for improvement, has become the 614th commandment.

I think we need to take a collective breath. Yes, there are things that should worry us; there are trends that we must address. Synagogue affiliation, patterns of observance, connection to Israel, antisemitism. But let’s not forget: we know a little something about change. And… there is a lot that’s really good in the Jewish world. For instance: The overwhelming majority of Jewish children are receiving some kind of Jewish education during their school years. For the last 11 years, there have been a steady 16,000 children in Jewish preschools and day schools in Los Angeles. There have been 13 major Jewish fundraising galas in LA in the month of March alone, some on the same night. No one is going anywhere until those pledges have been paid in full.

Surveys report symptoms; they are neither diagnoses nor treatment plans. So before we offer sacrifices on the altar of radical change, let’s go back for a moment to Jeremiah (Ch 7, v 22) and put his plan into perspective.

Bemoaning the problem with sacrifices, God, through Jeremiah, reminds his audience about the early days, when the Jewish People stood before Mount Sinai:

כִּ֠י לֹֽא־דִבַּ֤רְתִּי אֶת־אֲבֽוֹתֵיכֶם֙ וְלֹ֣א צִוִּיתִ֔ים בְּי֛וֹם הוציא [הוֹצִיאִ֥י] אוֹתָ֖ם מֵאֶ֣רֶץ מִצְרָ֑יִם עַל־דִּבְרֵ֥י עוֹלָ֖ה וָזָֽבַח׃

“When I freed your ancestors from the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them, nor did I command them, anything regarding burnt offerings or sacrifice.”

Rashi explains Jeremiah’s radical comment:

תחלת תנאי לא היתה אלא אם שמוע תשמעו בקולי ושמרתם את בריתי והייתם לי סגולה’ (שם יט)

At the beginning, my only stipulation with the People was “If you hearken to My voice and keep My covenant, you shall be a special treasure to Me.” That was the main message.

Jeremiah and Rashi are pointing out that the sacrifices, the big “fail” described in the Haftara, weren’t even part of the original plan…and that’s why Jeremiah so easily says they should be thrown overboard.

Rambam, in his Guide to the Perplexed, adds: “…the sacrificial service is not the primary purpose [of the commandments about sacrifice]; rather, supplications, prayers, and similar kinds of worship are nearer to the primary purpose, and indispensable for obtaining it.”

Taking the longer view, he says that the practice of animal sacrifice was designed for the purpose of transitioning the people from idolatry to monotheism…and it worked!

The challenge for the Rambam, though, is that the practice of korbanot is required by the Torah, it’s on the books and can’t just be thrown out. Of course, for all he knew, the next time there would actually be a Bet HaMikdash would be in the world to come.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, moving beyond the Rambam, has a more constructivist approach, closer to the post-Destruction Rabbis: He points out that Jewish practices have outer and inner layers of expression. When it comes to connecting with God, animal sacrifice served as the outer layer, as it was limited in terms of time, location, and authorized participants. Prayer, on the other hand, was the longer-lasting inner or personal layer, and open to everyone, anywhere. When the Temple was destroyed, the outer layer disappeared while the inner layer was able to evolve into a central part of Jewish life.

To summarize these three approaches to change: Jeremiah: Drop the practice. Rambam: understand the intent of the practice, but even if the practice has no further value, keep it because it’s in the Torah. Sacks: update the old, as well as allow new practices to evolve that better express our core values or beliefs. By the way, on this matter, Rabbi Sacks sounds suspiciously like a Conservative Rabbi!

So let’s come back to the present.

On the one hand, we have Jeremiah, Rashi, Rambam, post Destruction Rabbis, and Rabbi Sacks. On the other hand, we have the ethos of the Apple ad campaign, which elevates change and innovation to the status of a religious obligation.

So, moving forward, what should our tag line or motto for change be: Tradition and change? Change without tradition? Change tradition? Change and tradition? We’re all about the “and”?

In the last few years, many Jewish organizations have been engaged in desperation programming, hoping something will turn things around. But we know that “ready, fire, aim” doesn’t work.

To quote Bob Dylan, channeling TS Eliot: when there’s too much of nothing, no one has control.

So let’s get in control by asking some tough questions.

What do we care most about as Jews? What are our core beliefs and commitments? What would it look like to שמוע תשמעו בקולי ושמרתם את בריתי

‘hearken to God’s voice and keep God’s covenant’?

In Jeremiah’s words, what would be L’ratzon? – What do we want and need; and, as Heschel would ask: what does God want and need?

What would our schools, shuls, and organizations look like if they were aligned with these core beliefs and commitments? What would job descriptions for Rabbis, teachers, Heads of School, Federation executives, fundraisers, and board members look like?

Once we have our purposes or goals, how would we measure success? Membership and enrollment numbers? The number of people who keep kosher? An increased level of social justice and income equality?

We need a vision and we need a plan, because a vision without a plan is just a day dream, but a plan without a vision is a nightmare.

Lo b’shamayim hee. We can do this. To paraphrase Mordechai:

וּמִ֣י יוֹדֵ֔עַ אִם־לְעֵ֣ת כָּזֹ֔את הִגַּ֖ענוּ

Who knows? Perhaps this is why we are here right now.

Yes, Jeremiah was a bit crazy, a misfit, a troublemaker. Even the Rabbis in the Talmud had mixed feelings about him. But his message is still relevant:

לֹֽא־דִבַּ֤רְתִּי עַל־דִּבְרֵ֥י עוֹלָ֖ה וָזָֽבַח It can’t only be about the sacrifices.

So, Netze v’nilmad — let’s figure out what it is about, and then… let’s make the main thing the main thing. The rest is programming. Shabbat Shalom


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