Smoke from the sacrificial altar rises up from Jerusalem in this 1890 painting by James Tissot.
Smoke from the sacrificial altar rises up from Jerusalem in this 1890 painting by James Tissot.

We are imperfect — but commanded to do better

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Tzav

Leviticus 6:1-8:36


As the Latin name “Leviticus” suggests, much of the content in the book of Vayikra concerns laws and rituals, particularly those related to the priesthood and the tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that the Israelites carry with them during their journey through Sinai.

While the first five chapters of Leviticus are addressed to the Israelite public, the next two chapters, which start this week’s Torah portion, Tzav, are directed to the officiating priests. Most of the focus is on the various types of sacrifices and offerings that are required.

Chapters eight and nine provide a detailed description of the religious celebrations that essentially mark the beginning of formal worship in ancient Israel.

Certainly, in the books of Genesis and Exodus, there are many instances of spontaneous and personal acts of religiosity toward God (sacrificing rams, building altars, etc.). Yet it is not until this parashah that an official, hierarchical and public system of worship is introduced.

Largely based on animal sacrifice, the ancient Israelite religion incorporated laws and rituals that made expiation for sin, expressed gratitude and thanksgiving, and brought about bodily purification. There were also offerings for holy days and other occasions.

Jewish worship has evolved over the millennia. The synagogue has replaced the tabernacle and Temple as the central focus of the spiritual life of our people. Prayer has taken the place of sacrificial offerings. Rabbis have supplanted priests as the religious leaders of the Jewish community.

But one of the key ideas that grounds Jewish religiosity is the same now as it was during the biblical period: The world, and the human beings who inhabit it, are deeply imperfect.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that God has provided a pathway through which we can strive, albeit imperfectly, to repair our broken world and our broken selves. That pathway, that vehicle for existential repair, is prayer and sacrifice.

The tabernacle, both implicitly and explicitly, conveys (and concretizes) this metaphysical reality.

What does this mean? The existence of the tabernacle and its capacity to atone for human sinfulness and imperfection make it possible for an imperfect world to survive in the sight of an omnipotent and omnibenevolent God.

This raises one of the most vexing theological questions of all time, namely, if God is just, all-powerful and all-good, why would God create a world filled with so many injustices and imperfections? Why do suffering and evil exist?

The midrashic tradition offers a possible answer: “If God demands absolute justice, there can be no world. If God desires a world, there cannot be absolute justice.” (Leviticus Rabbah 10:1)

If God wanted to create a perfect world, a world where there is no suffering, no immorality, no injustice, then humans would be nothing more than robots, preprogrammed to follow God’s will and to accept reality as it is.

God instead gave us a different world, a world where we are free to make choices — including bad choices — but where we also can strive to make the world, and ourselves, better.

As the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz posited, this may very well be the best of all possible worlds, even with its flaws, imperfections and pain. Yet Judaism is aspirational. It commands us to do better, to be better, while simultaneously acknowledging that the work will never end.

As Pirkei Avot instructs, it is not up to us to complete the task of repairing our varied and innumerable broken places, but neither are we free to give up the lifelong, impassioned attempt.

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein
Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein

Rabbi Niles Elliot Goldstein is the spiritual leader of Congregation Beth Shalom in Napa Valley and the founding rabbi of the New Shul in New York City.