Wednesday, 20 Mar 2013

Written by Robyn Ashworth-Steen


I read this week’s parashah, Tzav, quickly.  I glossed over the details of the sacrifices.  To be honest, I found it tedious to read about the ritual of the meal offering – a handful of choice flour and oil is taken from the offering etc etc etc.  I found it hard to read about the meat offerings – with the reparation offering that must be slaughtered in a particular way and the blood that must be dashed on the sides of the altar – gruesome.  I didn’t want to know – too much unnecessary detail.  I want to close my eyes to it and get to the exciting parts of the Torah about personalities and God, not what happens with the entrails of an offering.

This is because, unlike my ancient Israelite ancestors, I am totally disengaged from the process of how my food arrives in my kitchen.  I order my food online, grab a ready meal, have my choice of exotic vegetables and fortified vitamin cereals.  I know nothing about farming, living day to day on the land and depending on the weather.  I do not struggle to find food for my family or myself.  The thought of going hungry never crosses my mind.  Although I often say, ‘I’m starving’, I’m nowhere close.

The Israelites knew, first-hand, what famine was and how awful it is.  They did not take their food for granted. Each part of the animal is given an elaborate ritual – important rules that must not be broken.  In certain cases, where rules are broken, the offending person will be cut off from society. And, worst of all it is God delivering the punishment, not humankind.  Transgressing these rules is serious and demands divine retribution.

The rituals of sacrifice allowed the Israelites to slow things down, to appreciate their sustenance and to be thankful for it.  I really believe rituals help with being grateful, and after the arrival of my brand new coffee machine I have the evidence to back this up!  No longer do I quickly boil my kettle, get a teaspoon of instant coffee and add a dash of milk.  I think about where the coffee beans come from, whether they are fair trade or not, I wait while the machine heats up, carefully level and tamp the ground coffee, coax the espresso out and slowly froth the milk to 140 degrees.  I even decorate my coffee with chocolate or cinnamon.  It’s a wonderful ritual and does it make my coffee taste better – absolutely! 

The Israelites were intimately involved in the process of where their food came from and knew that its existence was due to something greater than themselves.  They took communal and personal responsibility for their food.  This week’s parashah, as well as the recent horse meat scandal, has helped me to understand that I need to take personal responsibility, not only to be engaged with the process of where my food comes from, but also, and more importantly, to be responsible in helping those who, in our modern world, do understand what starvation means.

You may have heard of the campaign called Enough Food for Everyone – If.  It’s a coalition of UK based organisations who rightly say that hunger is unacceptable.  As Tzedek powerfully states on their website – “hunger kills more people than AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis combined.  Two million children die each year because of malnutrition.  And around the world, one in eight people go to bed hungry every night.  The food system is broken” 1.  In the lead up to Pesach, when we are reminded that we were once slaves in Egypt – we once suffered – actions speak louder than words.  As Leo Baeck said in The Essence of Judaism 2 (1946, p.56), “we cannot truly believe in what we do not practice” as “it is the deed which is decisive” (p.52).  And it is this in which the Israelites excelled.  They acted with sincerity and conviction and offered their gratitude up to God with reverential ritual and no shortcuts. 

Let us also act with conviction and visit the campaign’s website, pledge our support and petition the Government to take a stand on global hunger 3. [For those of you who have not tried it, you may also want to look at getting veg boxes and buying fair trade].  In Plaut’s Chumash (1981, p,689) he states that the quality of holiness passes like an electrical charge 4 .  I am sure that the more we get involved with the process of where our food comes from and the louder we shout that people should not be going hungry, our actions will pass like an electrical charge and the world will be a better place. 

בָּרוּךְ אַתָּה יְיָ אֱלֹהֵינוּ מֶלֶךְ הָעוֹלָם. הַמּוֹצִיא לֶחֶם מִן הָאָרֶץ.


 Robyn Ashworth-Steen
March 2013
2 Baeck, L. (1948) The Essence of Judaism. New York: Schoken Books.
3 and
4 Plaut, G. (1981) The Torah: A Modern Commentary. New York: The Union of American Hebrew Congregations.

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.