Tzav, the parashah right before the death of Aharon’s sons Nadav and Avihu, consists entirely of procedures for how to conduct ritual. In the next parashah, Nadav and Avihu die. Then we get a couple more parashiyot about procedures, and then Parashat Acharei Mot. In the timeline of the Torah, this parashah might as well be called Lifnei Mot — before the death – because that’s exactly what it is. Why does the parashah right before this tragedy -– a tragedy that is found almost exactly in the middle of the Torah –- focus exclusively on prescribing rituals?
Tzav seems to be attempting to set up a perfect ritual order right before everything goes terribly wrong. It appears sad in retrospect — a vision of perfection, violently marred. From my vantage point in the early 21st century –- looking back at the 20th century, and with new horrors cropping up every day -– I think to myself, “We know that brokenness is a fact of life.” And it’s true, the world comes to us almost pre-broken. In contrast, the innocence of Tzav’s faith in a world perfected through ritual seems almost tragic in its naïveté.*
But there is different perspective on ritual laid out by Adam Seligman et al in their book “Ritual and its Consequences.” To them, ritual is fully aware of the brokenness of the world. In fact, ritual is our primary way of relating to that brokenness. True, it gestures towards a kind of perfection, but only because it knows that that perfection is forever just out of reach. They quote the ritual theorist Jonathan Z. Smith: “It is not that ‘magical’ rituals compel the world […]; rather they express a realistic assessment of the fact that the world cannot be compelled” (p 26). Seligman et al go on to cite the Temple rituals specifically as Judaism’s original means of participating with God in creating and recreating an ordered world out of a chaos which is never fully under control (p 38). To put it simply: ritual would not be necessary if the world didn’t need a lot of work; in doing ritual -– be it sacrifice or prayer or any other -– we are acknowledging that the world is imperfect.
The Zohar agrees that these rituals are part of the maintenance of the world. In connection with our parashah, the Zohar states that the “Aroma of the offering sustains all, sustains the world. And the offering, is brought by the priest, who draws all together” (Zohar 3:35b; Pritzker, vii, p 206). This sounds deceptively static, as if it is done once and holds forever, but note that something must be sustained and brought together only to the extent that it is always about to fall apart. And indeed, these rituals must always be repeated – the daily offering brought daily, the eish tamid (continuously-burning light) in our parashah kept burning always – because, as Seligman et al put it “The world always returns to its broken state, constantly requiring the repairs of ritual.” When the temple was destroyed Seligman et al remind us that the location of these rituals moved to the body (p 38), and, as we know, to the home. One such ritual in the home is upon us with our preparations for Pesach. Ibn Ezra draws our attention from this parashah to Pesach with a laconic comment on the words “you should not bake chameitz” in connection with the sacrificial rituals (Ibn Ezra on Vayikra 6:10). “The reason for ‘you should not bake chameitz’,” Ibn Ezra says, “is the essence of the matzot of Pesach.” In other words, he tells us, we learn the essence of Pesach from this parashah, even though this parashah isn’t about Pesach. What does Pesach have to do with this parashah? I believe it’s the question of ritual, as exemplified in the ritual search for chameitz and especially its end, bitul chameitz – nullification of chameitz. After a seemingly perfectionistic search for chameitz, we end by admitting defeat: we have not been able to find it all. It will not, in fact, be a perfectly chameitz-free Pesach. We therefore declare all the chameitz we have missed – and even all the chameitz we have seen and not gotten rid of –as being ownerless, essentially as not counting. This declaration simultaneously admits imperfection, and declares that it doesn’t matter.
Acknowledgement that perfection is forever out of reach is the very culmination of the ritual, by design.
Those who developed and in some fashion carried out the rituals of Tzav were not surprised when things like the death of Nadav and Avihu marred their perfection, they carried out the rituals precisely because they knew that things would forever fall horribly apart, only to require rebuilding the next day, only to be torn down once again. To practice ritual is to know that perfection is forever elusive; that’s why we do it. So too in our physical and spiritual preparations for Pesach: We reach towards the perfect kitchen, perfect containment of our ego, perfect freedom, but the world comes pre-broken, so we try, fail, and repeat. That is not only good enough; it is the point.