Thoughts on Tzav (5779/2019)

(Lev. 6:1 – 8:36)

We often open our Shabbat evening services with the beautiful words from Psalm 133, “Hiney Mah tov umah na’im, shevet achim gam yachad” ---  which our Friday night siddur, Mishkan T’filah translates as “Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity!”

But that’s only the first verse of Psalm 133.

Here’s the whole psalm:


א  שִׁיר הַמַּעֲלוֹת, לְדָוִד:
הִנֵּה מַה-טּוֹב, וּמַה-נָּעִים--    שֶׁבֶת אַחִים גַּם-יָחַד.

1 A Song of Ascents; of David.
Behold, how good and how pleasant it is that brothers (and sisters) dwell together in unity!

ב  כַּשֶּׁמֶן הַטּוֹב,    עַל-הָרֹאשׁ--
יֹרֵד,    עַל-הַזָּקָן זְקַן-אַהֲרֹן:
שֶׁיֹּרֵד,    עַל-פִּי מִדּוֹתָיו.

2 It is like the fine oil upon the head
running down onto the beard, the beard of Aaron, that comes down upon the collar of his robe;

ג  כְּטַל-חֶרְמוֹן--    שֶׁיֹּרֵד, עַל-הַרְרֵי צִיּוֹן:
כִּי שָׁם צִוָּה יְהוָה,    אֶת-הַבְּרָכָה--
חַיִּים,    עַד-הָעוֹלָם.

3 Like the dew of Hermon, that falls down upon the mountains of Zion;
for there the Eternal commanded the blessing, everlasting life.

These latter verses of Psalm 133 come to mind for me because this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Tzav, includes a detailed description of Aaron’s ordination as Kohen Gadol or High Priest.   This ordination ritual includes the detail at Leviticus 8:12 about Moses pouring the anointing oil upon Aaron’s head:

יב  וַיִּצֹק מִשֶּׁמֶן הַמִּשְׁחָה, עַל רֹאשׁ אַהֲרֹן; וַיִּמְשַׁח אֹתוֹ, לְקַדְּשׁוֹ.

12 And he poured of the anointing oil upon Aaron's head, and anointed him, to sanctify him.

We might wonder – What does all of us dwelling together in unity have to do with this apparently messy anointing ceremony?  Rashi explains that this refers to a teaching in the Talmud, in Masechet Horayot where the sages discuss the meaning of the words of Psalm 133: 

Our Rabbis taught: It is like the precious oil … coming down upon the beard, even Aaron's beard, etc., two drops like pearls hung from Aaron's beard. R: Papa said: A Tanna taught that when he spoke they ascended and lodged at the root of his beard. And concerning this matter, Moses was anxious. He said, 'Have I, God forbid, made an improper use of the anointing oil?  [By having applied too much (Rashi Ker. 5b).] A heavenly voice came forth and called out, “Like the precious oil …like the dew of Hermon; as the law of improper use of holy objects is not applicable to the dew of Hermon, so also is it not applicable to the anointing oil on the beard of Aaron.” Aaron however, was still anxious. He said, 'It is possible that Moses did not trespass, but I may have trespassed'. A heavenly voice came forth and said to him, [Hiney Mah Tov Umah Naim, shevet achim gam yachad] Behold how good and how pleasant it is for brothers to dwell together in unity;  just as Moses is not guilty of trespass, so are you not guilty of trespass.  (Horayot 12a)

So, basically, Moses and Aaron were each worried that they had messed up the ordination ceremony by being sloppy with the oil, and God said – don’t worry it’s all cool.

How might we apply that teaching to ourselves?

I guess we might say that what it means for us “shevet achim gam yachad” / “to dwell together as brothers and sisters in unity” is that we should all chill out a bit and not be too tightly wound up with concerns about ceremonial details.  So maybe Moses and Aaron were each a little klutzy with the oil. Maybe sometimes we ourselves are socially inept, or physically uncoordinated. We should do our best – put our hearts and souls into what we’re doing – and not beat ourselves up --- or beat up one another over our imperfections.

This reminds me of one time when I was in rabbinical school and we were having some sort of student-run program.  One of the moderators made a request of all of us.  The request was that when someone was making a presentation, we should make a conscious effort to “beam support” to the person making the presentation. 

When we “beam support” we’re thus like the heavenly voice that gave assurance to those two brothers in our Torah portion, Moses and Aaron, that they were doing okay.  That they needn’t worry about making a bit of a mess with the anointing oil -- that they were getting the important things right.

But what about that other simile in the Psalm  -- that the “shevet achim gam yachad” / the “siblings dwelling together in unity” is not only like the oil spilling down from Aaron’s head to his beard and his clothing --- it’s also “ketal Chermon sheyored al harirei Tziyon/  “ like the dew of Hermon that falls down upon  the mountains of Zion.”

“Hermon” (חרמון ) , of course, refers to Mt. Hermon.  Nowadays, we think of Mt. Hhermon mostly in the context of its strategic location in the Israeli-occupied Golan Heights, on the border of Syria.  It’s also the locale of a popular ski resort.  The entire Golan Heights area, including one side of Mt. Hermon, was seized by Israel during the Six-Day War in 1967.  Prior to that, Syrian forces had periodically used the Golan Heights as a vantage point from which to attack Israeli communities in the Upper Galilee region located below it.[1]

Coincidentally, just yesterday, President Trump “tweeted” the following message: 

After 52 years it is time for the United States to fully recognize Israel’s Sovereignty over the Golan Heights, which is of critical strategic and security importance to the State of Israel and Regional Stability!

A Twitter message does not constitute formal governmental policy, so we will surely continue to hear lots of noise about this from all sides of the political spectrum in the coming days until some other story overshadows this one in the news cycle.[2]  At the moment, as with Trump’s decision to move the U.S. embassy from Tel Aviv to West Jerusalem, a number of commentators are saying that this apparent policy shift is for political purposes – both to shore up Trump’s base in the States, and to help out Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu’s current re-election campaign.

However, as a matter of “facts on the ground,” no one really expects Israel to be leaving the Golan Heights.  And no one really disagrees that Israel’s presence on the Golan Heights is of critical strategic and security importance to Israel.  And no one really disagrees that Israel’s presence on the Golan Heights enhances regional stability given the ongoing chaos and Iranian incursions in neighboring Syria.

As for the significance of Mt. Hermon in classic Hebrew texts, Adele Berlin and Marc Zvi Brettler in the JPS Jewish Study Bible suggest that when Psalm 133 refers to Mt. Hermon, the psalm might be hinting at hopes for the reunion of the tribes of Israel --- with the ten tribes of the northern kingdom of Israel being symbolized by Mt. Hermon and the two remaining tribes of the southern kingdom of Judah symbolized by the Mountains of Zion.[3] 

As you may know, following the reign of King Solomon the ancient Israelite kingdom had split in two, and the ten northern tribes had been lost to history following the conquest of the north two centuries later by the Assyrian Empire.

So, Psalm 133 represents a fervent hope for the future that someday our estranged tribes would come together once more as in days of old.

And we do indeed live in a world of estranged tribes.  This Shabbat, we are still reeling from the massacre one week ago of fifty Muslims at the two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.  And it’s only a couple of months since the terrorist attack on a Roman Catholic church in the Philippines in which twenty Christians were killed.  And five months since the attack on the synagogue in Pittsburgh in which eleven Jews were killed.  And, lest we forget, twenty-five years since the Purim Day massacre by a twisted hate-filled American-born Israeli Jew of twenty-nine Muslim worshippers at the Cave of Machpelah in Hebron – the site venerated by both Muslims and Jews as the burial place of our common ancestor Abraham, also known as Avraham, also known as Ibrahim  

But let us not despair of our world.  Let us keep hope alive through our prayers, and through our reaching out to one another both within our community and across cultural lines --- as we seek to actualize the psalmist’s vision – “Hiney mah tov u’mah na’im” -- that “good and pleasant” vision ---  of a peaceful and harmonious world.

Shabbat shalom.

© Rabbi David Steinberg

Adar Sheni 5779/ March 2019

[1] https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-03-21/why-golan-heights-matter-to-israel-syria-and-trump-quicktake

[2] Note:  a few days after I wrote and delivered this dvar torah, President Trump followed up the tweet with an official proclamation:   https://www.cnbc.com/2019/03/27/trump-officially-recognized-israels-annexation-of-golan-heights.html

[3] JPS Study Bible http://www.amazon.com/The-Jewish-Study-Bible-Publication/dp/0195297547   , p. 1432

Posted on March 27, 2019 .