My understanding, my reading of this week’s parashah was under the influence of the presentations and conversations related to process of selecting a new Principal for Le Baeck College. Clearly, this decision is very significant for us as students. Coming from the Former Soviet Union, I am like a new person in this democratic system, and I was very impressed.
In our meetings with candidates for the position on Wednesday, we talked about the difficulties of finding topics for a D’var Torah in this week’s parashah.
Let’s begin with the first important verse. God speaks to Moses, saying:
‘Command Aaron and his sons thus: ‘This is the ritual of the burnt offering. The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is keep going on it.”’ (Lev. 6:2).
Strangely, it is again about sacrifices. But we have already read about all the sacrifices in last week’s parashah. Why once again is there need to explain what has already been described in so much detail?
Rabbi Moses ben Nachman (RAMBAN) wrote in his Torah Commentary that we can see a significant difference between the beginning of Va-Yikra and the beginning of Tsav. Parashat Va-Yikra begins with God’s instruction to Moses to speak to b’nei Yisra’el (Lev. 1:2), all of the ordinary Jews, and explain the sacrifices to them. This is done in great detail to ensure that all Jews will be able to chose the sacrifice they must do. Parashat Tsav provides detailed technical guidance for Aaron and his sons, the “professionals” in charge of the altar. For example: How to clean the altar, or how many times to bake the grain offering, or in which cases the meat is unfit for sacrifice, and so forth.
These laws are exclusively for professionals, namely, for the Kohanim
But then why do the ordinary people have to read and learn these laws?
In comparing these two chapters I can see the work of a competent educator. Imagine that we are talking about the curriculum for a university programme. At the beginning of the year, we have to decide how many hours will be spent studying a particular subject, how important it will be for the student to do research in it, or whether it will be just filling a need for general knowledge.
On the one hand, we should not provide students only with a narrow vocational training and make them experts in one small field, but not adapted to life. Physicists should be able to obtain a broad diverse education, so that they will have some idea about music, literature and biology. And poets should be able to add two numbers together, and have some knowledge of geography and other important subjects. And, to return to the Bible, the simple shepherds, the labourers, the weavers need to know about the sacrifices.
On the other hand, we should not overload the students with useless information. Mathematicians may not need to write poetry if they do not want to. It is a wrong to explain material with the same words for people whose need for it is different, and who are prepared to accept it differently.
And so in the parashah “Va-Yikra” the sacrifices are described in detail, but in “Tsav” we see some brief instructions, as they are for Kohanim, expert professionals, who already know about the subject and do not need to be told all the details.
One of my favorite Russian poets is Ivan Andreevich Krylov. He lived in the late 18th- to early 19th century, and became famous because he wrote a book of fables. A fable is a satirical poem. At the end of his fables there is a brief conclusion, the moral. One of Ivan Krylov’s fables is The Pike and the Cat”. The moral, he says, is: “There will be trouble when the baker begins repairing boots and the shoemaker begins to bake pies.”
Everyone must do his or her own job and not try to do what they cannot. There are versatile people who have attained knowledge in many areas, and our Sages considered them to be a great advantage. But no matter how much people know, if they do not know how to draw the line and they begin to talk as if they are experts about something they really do not understand, in the best case they just look pitiful, and at worst, they can do real harm.
Our parashah Tsav tells us about the professionalism of the Kohenim, who know the characteristics of their work. Yet the work of priests is no secret. Everyone can read the instructions, and make sure that the ordinary Kohanim and even the High Priest do his job correctly. There is, however, one more nuance. Even if you believe that you have fully grasped the secrets of a profession, that does not make you a professional, if you do not recognize others as knowing more than you. And this applies not only to venerable authority, but also to ordinary people, among whom you will work.
The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.