Wednesday, March 23, 2016

The Value of Perpetuity (Tzav 5776)

I know people are thinking about Purim, but I am posting my Toronto Torah article this week, in case anyone is looking for a thought for Shabbos...

As lottery winners demonstrate when they choose lump sum payouts over perpetual annuities, human beings prefer immediate payment of a smaller sum over long-term payment of a larger sum. Economists explain this behaviour via the principle of “time value of money”: since money can earn interest, money is worth more to us when we receive it sooner. The longer we need to wait, the less the money is worth to us.

Applying “time value of money” to mitzvot, one might argue that “Energetic people perform mitzvot at the earliest opportunity.” (Pesachim 4a) If mitzvot lead to additional mitzvot (Avot 4:2), then we should perform mitzvot as soon as possible, the better to trigger our next mitzvah more immediately. However, Rabbi Naftali Zvi Yehudah Berlin (a.k.a. Netziv) noted an opposite example in our parshah. Regarding the burning of the korban olah (burnt offering), taking more time is more highly valued. A korban olah that burns perpetually, throughout the night, is more desirable to G-d than a korban olah burned immediately.

Vayikra 6:2 instructs the kohanim, “This is the law of the korban olah, which ascends on the fire on the altar all night, until morning.” As the Talmud (Megilah 21a) explains, one may burn the day’s korbanot at any time during the night. However, Rabbi Berlin wrote, “The instruction to the kohanim is that they see to it that the flesh of the korban olah should be placed [on the altar] and consumed, little by little, until the morning. It should not be consumed immediately, lest the altar be empty of the offering.” (Ha’amek Davar to Vayikra 6:2) Rabbi Berlin explained that this is why G-d told Moshe that he must not only relate these laws to the kohanim, but he must command them – because this process requires great care and attention. (Ha’amek Davar ibid.) Here we see an inverted sense of “time value”: this mitzvah is of greater value now, because its completion will take longer.

Why do we value this extended time? And why is this emphasis on perpetuity unique to the stage of burning, and not to earlier processes? At this stage, the gift has been given, the vow fulfilled, and any necessary atonement has been achieved. The sponsors of the korban have gone home, the instruments of the Levites are silent, and almost all of the kohanim have removed their splendid uniforms and nodded off to sleep. Even if we are concerned that a fire should remain on the altar, plenty of wood is present; why do we care about how long the korban olah burns?

Perhaps the value of spending time is actually a result of the fact that the essential service has concluded. At this stage, it is only the barefoot kohen in a darkened Temple, standing in lonely worship of his Creator, with a warm bed waiting somewhere else. G-d beckons to this kohen: stay with Me.

A similar concept is found with the mitzvah of linah, in which people who bring certain korbanot remain in Jerusalem overnight, after the ritual is complete. (Chagigah 17a-b) In another example, Shemini Atzeret is seen as one last day on which G-d asks us to remain, after the seven days of Succot are complete. (Rashi to Vayikra 23:36)

This perspective is consistent with Rambam’s relationship-based explanation of korbanot. Rambam was troubled by Yirmiyahu’s prophetic declaration (7:22-23), “For on the day I removed your fathers from Egypt, I did not speak to them and I did not command them regarding burnt offerings and celebration sacrifices. Only this did I instruct them, saying: Hear My voice and I will be your G-d, and you will be My nation.” Yirmiyahu seems to say that Hashem does not desire korbanot - but the Torah itself testifies to the contrary! Rambam (Moreh Nevuchim 3:32) explained that Yirmiyahu was teaching the importance of the relationship that accompanies, and validates, a korban. “The primary object is that you should know Me and serve no other, and I will be your G-d and you will be My nation.” As the kohen remains in the Beit haMikdash, long after the ceremonies are over, that relationship is deepened.

We are currently without korbanot, but the opportunity to experience perpetuity remains. Sitting in a synagogue to recite Tehillim privately after davening is over; singing at a Shabbat table after the meal; holding the hand of a needy person after giving tzedakah; we can be that kohen, lingering in the dark, positioning the korban olah on the altar. To us, too, Moshe commands: Give this great care and attention, all night, until morning.

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