This week’s Torah reading, Tzav, offers a deluge of detail about the priests, their investiture into God’s priesthood and their offerings on behalf of the people of Israel. The portion ends with the reminder of the faithfulness of God’s chosen leadership, “And Aaron and his sons did all the things that God had commanded by the hand of Moses” (Leviticus 8:36). Throughout the Torah reading there is a tension between the exalted status of the priesthood and the mind-numbing small details of their vestments and sacrifices.
Typically, Midrash Leviticus Rabbah seizes upon this tension to teach a moral lesson. It underscores the contrast by referring to a verse from Psalm 50:23, “One who offers a thanksgiving sacrifice honors Me; yet to one who makes a way shall I show the salvation of the Lord.” It comments that the latter half of the verse, “one who makes a way,” refers to those who make a way for another. As an example it offers Hebrew schoolteachers who faithfully teach children how to read. A second example that the midrash offers is the pious storekeeper who sells produce only after it has been properly tithed. A final example is those who light the street lamps so that people may make their ways safely at night — especially to the synagogue and other Jewish institutions.
It is the first half of the Psalm verse that the midrash is aiming for, since the “one who offers the thanksgiving sacrifice” is the priest. By contrasting the priest with the schoolteacher, the storekeeper and the lamplighter, the midrash teaches a lesson about the workings of the Jewish community. Leadership is important, of course, but the Jewish community is not just made up of leaders. It is also made up of congregants and everyday participants: not just the machers, but also the minyanaires; not just the guest speaker, but the volunteer who puts out the chairs and lectern; not just the major donor, but the one who scrapes and saves to pay a $100 pledge.
Regrettably, it is all too easy for Jewish leadership to forget that our community has a diverse membership. Leadership councils all too often speak only to one another. Rabbis at times forget that Jews who are not as well educated in Judaica as they nevertheless might represent the Jewish community. In a Torah portion that speaks explicitly of the perquisites of leadership — what gifts the priests receive for their service (Leviticus 7:35) — the midrash is at pains to remind us that our community consists of more than machers.
A story is told of the third-century Galilean Rabbi Yannai, who once was invited to dine with a fellow Jew. Boorishly, Rabbi Yannai quizzed him over dinner about his Jewish knowledge. When he found him wanting, Rabbi Yannai took offense that such a man might presume to dine with him. The man responded, “It does not say in Deuteronomy (33:4), ‘Moses commanded us the Torah, an inheritance of the congregation of Yannai,’ but rather ‘an inheritance of the congregation of Jacob!’” Rabbi Yannai accepted this comeuppance, and asked the man to speak of his own merits. The fellow told him that he was zealous never to repeat gossip and took pains to make peace between quarrelling parties. Rabbi Yannai then praised him with the verse of Psalms quoted above, “to one who makes a way shall I show the salvation of the Lord.” For Yannai, this Jew who was ignorant of rabbinic literature was, nonetheless, exemplary: He made a way to God by his ethical actions.
As the rabbis summarize the lessons of leadership of this Torah reading they note that neglect of the smallest offering, “one-tenth of an ephah of flour” (Leviticus 6:13), can preclude the priests from achieving greatness. Midrash Leviticus Rabbah has only scorn for those who think that an advanced degree in Judaica or a large contribution in and of itself in some way elevates one Jew above another. Each and every Jew is part of the great mosaic that makes up the Jewish people. God accepts all of our offerings.
Rabbi Burton L. Visotzky teaches at the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.