We're in the middle of a study of ancient offerings in the Bible. And one task we have is to keep thinking how this text speaks to us today.
One point I want to make in that regard - borrowing from Jacob Neusner - is that the practice itself of bringing offerings is testimony to our central place in God's creation.
After all, it is we who have the power to inaugurate, initiate, and fulfill this process of sanctification, this process of drawing near to God, whether it be from our need and love and will, our desire to be restored after missing the mark or being distant, or our desire to be thankful or promote well-being.
In this portion, we go right back through the sacrifices we discussed last week, but this time we look at instructions to the priests as to their role in facilitating the offerings. Our work today is both to explore who the priests were and what they did in the Bible and to get a better understanding of the offerings themselves and what they and the priests who helped officiate over them mean to us.
Let's begin by my asking this:
Based on what you've learned before and/or what we've studied together so far, what do you believe the fundamental purpose of the priests in the Bible was? And do you see analogues either to people or forces within people that serve such purposes today?
(In some capacities, this could be our ministers and rabbis. It could be teachers or others who inspire and help us serve God. It could be some teaching or tradition that "walks" with us and brings us and helps us make offerings.
Or could there be something inside each us that teaches and directs us to come near God with offerings, as Moses did in ancient times; something in each of us that actually helps guide us and facilitate our doing so, as the priests did; and something or some force that moves us forward to bring the offerings, as did our ancestors in times of old?)
I. Read 6:1-2.
A. What's the first main action here, and why is it significant?
(Tzav. Command. We learn at the beginning of the book that we are called and commanded. These are "musts" for priests - yesterday's and today's.)
B. This is the ritual of the burnt offering. What's your translation of that word that appears in my Bible as ritual?
(The Hebrew is torat, as in Torah. So, the meaning could be literally that this is the instruction or teaching relating to officiating of these practices.
Or, to get very cool, it could suggest that there is Torah for or out of the burnt offering, that is to say that there is something deeper, some learning, some more fundamental Torah, or instruction, in the burnt offering. I like that. We're looking for it!)
C. Remember we're talking about the burnt offering, which was the voluntary offering we discussed first last week. Recalling that, what does it mean that the fire on the altar is kept going on it throughout the night the offering is burned?
(It parallels the fire in the heart of the officiating priest, whose enthusiasm for the sacred activity does not diminish, nor should that of the one bringing the offering.
Further, it suggests the importance of the fire burning for offerings all the time, including at night in the darkness, as if to say that the fire and glow of Torah are to burn incessantly.)
II. Read 6:3-4.
A. What do you make of the priest himself taking the ashes of the
offering away and disposing of them?
(The act of offering isn't over after the drama and excitement of the flame, and the burning, and the consumption. All this creates ashes or the "after-effects." It's not as jazzy to complete the process by carrying the ashes away and disposing of them. But the act of one day typically extends to the next. This is a good way to see, learn, and experience that lesson.
Isn't it also the case sometimes with our offerings that there are "ashes" that must be cleaned up? We may give, but the giving might have "ashes" to clean up in the form of followup duties, odd emotions (such as letdown), or perhaps unexpected hard feelings on the part of others who might be affected, or other difficulties that accompany a worthy offering.
The priest (and we) often have cleaning up ashes as the last step of the previous day's "sacrifice." And to see the priest engaging in this seemingly "lowly" action serves as an example to all of us.
Do you understand or agree? Any examples of how this duty might play out in our lives?)
B. Let's return to the idea of this perpetual fire on the altar being kept burning at all time. Can you come up with ways in which that might be a useful insight to us today?
(The opportunity to make a voluntary offering to God should always be available to us, at all times. The fire that would consume our offering to God's benefit is perpetual, whatever we bring, which today could be prayer, meditation, offered resources of value, study, etc.)
III. Read 6:12-16.
In the rest of chapter 6, we learn of priestly procedures for the minhah and chatat offerings we studied last week. But here we get a new discussion about the handling of the priest's own grain offering.
Why do you think the priest makes his own grain offering? After all, part of his sustenance is eating of the grain offerings of others who bring them.
(Possible answers: a) he, too, has a need to make his own sacrifice to be near God, one which is entirely devoted to God and b) it shows by example that all who have limited resources can and should draw near)
IV. Read 7:11-12, 15 and then 16-17.
A. There is a further discussion in this chapter on the procedures for the priest to handle the asham offering we discussed last week. But I want to focus on the two types of well-being offerings that are discussed, too - one for thanksgiving and the other which is more generally and simply a free will offering.
What big difference did you notice in the treatment of these two types of offerings?
(The thanksgiving offering had to be eaten within a day. The other could go through a second day. Without knowing any more about the two, explain what you think might be the reason for that, its purpose?
The thanksgiving offering is for a really significant moment, such as surviving a disaster, recovering from illness, being released from confinement, perhaps being found when lost spiritually. We need to (more than are obliged to) give the offering.
The saving typically takes place quickly, perhaps accompanied by a vow on our part; so should the celebration and/or the beginning of a fulfillment of a vow. It's the moment in celebration of the moment of saving, not a lazy casual sort of lingering. Further, as Abravanel teaches, the celebrant will put a more prominent focus on the saving and likely draw more people there to see and experience and learn, if on a single day.
Perhaps an offering given spontaneously from a contented heart should be celebrated more slowly and relaxed.
Do you recall elsewhere in the text an episode when food had to be eaten on the same day?
(The passover meal. So, we associate such saving moments with being freed, crossing the sea, and receiving the blessing of life with God. We celebrate at such times in the same manner.)
B. Two final notes on this very interesting offering of well-being. Read 7:28-30 and 37-38.
We see again the importance of this offering - the personal involvement of the offeror and the concluding mention (emphasis) of the offering on the list at the end of the chapter.
As it is said in Aggadah, "Though all sacrifices may be discontinued in the futures (for in the messianic age, men will be sinless), the offering of thanksgiving will never cease. Though all prayers may be discontinued, the prayer of thanksgiving will never cease."
If time, ask: do you agree to the centrality of this offering? Why or why not?
V. In chapter 8, we come to the ordination of Aaron and the priests. We've already studied this process. But there are a few things I want to ask.
A. First, when Moses convenes all the people to witness the consecration of the priests, what are his first words to commemorate the proceeding? Any guesses?
("This is what the Lord (Adonai) has commanded be done." The word tzivah or Tzav resonates throughout the portion! The text is all about God's command, in love for us, that we know and have the way to respond to the Divine call to be near.)
Second, we see the command language again at the end. Read 8:33-36.
Command is certainly the motif here! In fact, as Alter says, it's "an envelope" around the chapter, as we might expect. Indeed it's used 7 times in the chapter, as it was used 7 times in the manufacture of the vestments and 7 times in the assembly of the Tabernacle. Ah, the number 7.
Trivia question: what language in the Psalms best summarize the lesson here of God's directing our construction and operation of the Tabernacle?
("Unless the Lord builds the house, the builders labor in vain." 127:1.)
B. Did you notice that Moses was to "assemble the whole community at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting." What? You know how small this Tabernacle is, and the people number approximately 600,000. Explain.
(Only the leaders perhaps? A representative group? A miracle?
Some sages say it's designed to teach when we show friendship and unity and love, when we focus on the needs of the community and others, when we join together in service to God and seek God together, we dwell amicably together. And, when that's so, however "crowded," we all "can fit" and not feel any need to feel otherwise or complain.
Others say the space, in a way, expanded, perhaps spiritually, which can happen as people join together to be a part of fulfilling God's command.)
C. We've talked about the required passage of seven days before. But let's close with your thoughts again on why this transition of consecration was commanded. (?)
(This parallels the creation of the world. A full cycle will have passed of the ceremony, so all will begin in a new cycle. The transition also suggests a process for gaining readiness. It doesn't come "all of a sudden.")
D. Finally, let's reflect on the ceremony: the sights, the smells, the anointing oil, the offerings, and, crucially, the further devolution of authority from Moses. Impressions? Meaning?
(Mainly, it's about the significance of priests, both as servants of God and servants of ours, to facilitate the work of sustaining our nearness to God. The celebration should be rich and meaningful and impactful, and should be in a way that powerfully touches our senses.
Moses serves God as the overall leader and knows the incredible importance of this goal of nearness of the people and God. Without regard to his own temporal power or position, he works faithfully and vigorously to fulfill this crucially important command from God. Moses devolves power because it best serves God and the people.)
The availability of the Tabernacle and the blessing of God's presence are powerfully comforting to us mere mortals, whether king, priest, or parishioner. The Bible dwells on the space and the need we feel to be near God in all sorts of moments, especially when we may not have lived up to expectations. There is a sense of imperfection in man which must be recognized in order to survive in a world of a just and perfect God. As the midrash says, "if God demands absolute justice, there can be no world. If God desires a world, there cannot be absolute justice."
So, having the space, having it built and equipped to specification, and having priests to help us in all moments, especially moments of great need - all of this is a true blessing from God, and one which we must be diligent in remembering and being true to and utilizing now and in the future.
How we do so will be a source of continuing thought and conversation for us.
And, fortunately for us, we'll do just that during "Spring Vacation Bible School," our next two Sundays. Our texts will be from Prophets, and they will include those verses that are studied in the cycle as companions to the last two Torah portions. So, just what the crowd demands, more on sacrifice! Don't miss it!!