December 9, 2018

Willing to sacrifice: Parashat Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36)

The mind of the midrashist drifts effortlessly over the face of the Tanakh as verses from the Torah conjure up similar verses and phrases from other sacred books. Thus, our parasha’s descriptions of the thanksgiving offerings and the free-will offerings call to mind a phrase found in Psalm 50: “The one who sacrifices a thanksgiving offering honors me.” And the midrash here in Parashat Tzav uses this phrase as a springboard for its exploration of the theme of gratitude to God. And then, having introduced this phrase, the midrash goes on to look at the somewhat enigmatic next phrase there in Psalm 50, a phrase which the Jewish Publication Society (JPS) translation literally labels “meaning of Hebrew uncertain.”

The one word that is readily identifiable in the phrase is “derech,” meaning path or way. And what’s also fairly clear is that verse’s closing words (“will be shown the salvation of God”) speak in praise of this person whose path or way is proper. The midrash, as is its way, offers its interpretation of the phrase by telling us a story.

Rabbi Yanai was known for the gracious hospitality he extended to scholars and learned men. Not a single one could pass through his town without breaking bread at Rav Yanai’s table. It once happened that a scholarly looking man appeared in town, and, as could be expected, Rav Yanai ushered him into his home on sight. As the midrash tells the story, “Rav Yanai fed the man and gave him drink. He examined him in Scripture, but found that the man knew nothing. In Mishna, but again found that the man knew nothing. In Aggadah, nothing. In Talmud, and again nothing.”

Rav Yanai was becoming agitated, as he had clearly overestimated his guest, and frankly, preferred to expend his resources on people of stature. In a last attempt to uncover at least some minimal literacy in his guest, Rav Yanai asked the man to lead the blessing after the meal. But confirming Rav Yanai’s worst fears, the man ducked and said, “Let Yanai lead the blessing in his own home!” Angry and frustrated, Rav Yanai then laid a trap for the man, proposing that he repeat after him. When the guest agreed to do so, Rav Yanai looked his guest in the eye and said, “A dog has eaten of Yanai’s bread.”

As shocked as we might be by this outburst, the guest was this and more. The man grabbed Rav Yanai by the shirt and said, “You are withholding my inheritance from me!” 

“What inheritance of yours could I possibly be withholding?” Rav Yanai retorted. 

“One time, long ago,” the guest replied, “I was walking near the entrance of a school, and I heard the children recite, ‘The Torah was commanded to us by Moshe, an inheritance of the people of Jacob.’ It is not written that the Torah is an inheritance of the people of Yanai, rather that it is an inheritance of the people of Jacob.” 

Chastised and recognizing his error (though still apparently proud of his table’s reputation), Rav Yanai inquired of the man by what merit he thinks God brought him to dine there that day. 

“I have never returned an insult in kind, and I have never encountered two people quarrelling with one another without endeavoring to make peace between them,” the man replied. 

“You possess so much derech ertez [the way of upright behavior], and I called you a dog!” Rav Yanai then ascribed to him those words whose meaning JPS was uncertain of, rendering them “the one who is thoughtful and deliberate in his way, will be shown the salvation of God.”  

What makes this story truly remarkable is that it is recorded in the midrash at all. And not just because it portrays one of the Sages in a negative light, but because there is only one way it could possibly have entered the stream of rabbinic lore. The unnamed guest couldn’t have achieved this, and there were no witnesses to the story. Indeed, the story is told by Rav Yanai himself. And this is remarkable. 

We often wonder what gifts we can leave for others, how we can best contribute to their welfare and well-being. Rav Yanai’s ultimate teaching here is that it is a great gift to share stories that are unflattering to us, when these stories will save others from our mistakes. It’s a hard gift to give, and I’d presume that Rav Yanai knew that there was a good chance that his story would be told for countless generations to come. Yet he gave the gift anyway.

Parshat Tzav speaks a lot about the willingness to sacrifice for God. In its characteristically circuitous way, the midrash on Tzav has illustrated what this willingness looks like.

Rav Yosef Kanefsky is rabbi at B’nai David-Judea, a Modern Orthodox congregation.