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  • Writer's pictureSamuel Lebens

Tzav: Grace and Favour

This week's reading contains the laws of the "Peace Offering"; a type of sacrifice to be brought in the Tabernacle (Leviticus 7:11-21). Many offerings were brought, each day, out of legal obligation. The nation is mandated, for example, to bring a Korban Tamid (a "constant offering"), twice a day. Various other offerings are mandated in the wake of sin; to atone. But the Peace Offering is not compulsory. It is brought, rather, by individuals out of various feelings of religious devotion; to give thanks to God, or to fulfill the terms of vows, that religious devotees chose to make.

Another ceremony to take place in the Tabernacle, beside all of the sacrifices, is the Priestly Blessing; in which Aaron and his descendants would bless the Children of Israel. The text of this blessing is recorded in the book of Numbers (6:24-26). In the final verse of the blessing, the Priests pray that God will show us favour (literally, turn his face to us), and grant us peace. This juxtaposition between (1) God showing us favour and (2) his granting us peace lead the Rabbis to suggest, in the Midrash, that when people would bring a peace offering, God would show them favour.

Having made its point, the Midrash then worries. Is it possible for the Holy One, blessed be He, to lift his face towards [i.e., to show favour towards] mortals? Sure, we have the verses of the Priestly blessing, beseeching God to lift his face to us, but we also have the following verse, in the book of Deuteronomy (10:17):

For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who doesn't lift his face [i.e., he shows no favour] and takes no bribe.

If you bring a Peace Offering to bribe God, then you're certainly barking up the wrong tree. But even if you bring a Peace Offering in the hope that God might show you favour (which is't exactly the same thing), you'd still be barking up the wrong tree. God shows no favour. So why, then, do the Priests (seemingly) waste their breath asking God to do just that?

Before it addresses this question, the Midrash presents another contradiction between verses. First: in the book of Ezekiel (33:11), God asks: “Do I desire the death of the wicked?” And yet, another verse, in the book of Samuel (I:2:25), explicitly describes God as desiring the death of the wicked.

Which is it? Does God, or does God not, desire the death of the wicked? The Midrash suggests a resolution: he doesn't desire their death, presumably because he would rather see them repent and live, until he resolves that they should die, perhaps after giving them a chance of repentance. Once he's resolved that they should die, from that point on, he desires their death. How does this help us to resolve our initial contradiction; the contradiction between God showing favour, and God never showing favour? So far, it's not clear. The Midrash continues:

There was a story about our Holy Rabbi [i.e., about R. Yehuda the Prince]. He was passing through the town of Simonia. All the people of the city came out to meet him. They requested from him an elder, a sage, to teach them Torah. He gave them Rabbi Levi ben Sisi. They said to him, ‘Our teacher, what is the meaning of what is written in Daniel (10:21), “However, I will tell you what is inscribed in the record of truth?” Is there something false in the Torah that it [must specify here] truth?’ [When] he did not find an answer to give them, he immediately went away [from there and came] to Rabbi. He said to him, ‘I could not stand up before them. They asked me one thing, and I could not find out what to answer them.’

In other words, Rabbi Levi ben Sisi was installed as a teacher, in the town of Simonia, but he was stumped by a question. Daniel refers to some sort of holy scripture (perhaps the Torah itself), and he describes it as true. But it should go without saying that the Torah is true. Is there anything false in the Torah? Rabbi Levi returned, despondent, to Rabbi Yehuda. Rabbi Yehuda said to him:

"There was a great answer for you to give them... When someone sins, the Holy One, blessed be He, inscribes death for him. [And if] he repents, the record is canceled. [But if] he does not repent, it is inscribed in the record of truth."

In other words, not everything that God writes is a true description of reality. Some of what he writes is more like a provisional draft, or a threat. But it can be overturned. It can be overturned by our actions. If a person is wicked, God may write his name down in the book of death. But that doesn't have to seal the deal. Just because it's been written down, it doesn't make it true; at least not yet. If the person repents, God can delete what he wrote, and inscribe his name, no longer in the book of death, but in the book of truth.

See how, in Rabbi Yehuda's answer, the book of life is associated with the book of truth. This coheres with the Rabbinic notion that negative prophecies -- death and destruction -- can always be overturned; they are more like threats than promises. But positive prophecies -- promising life and redemption -- will never be overturned. A positive promise, such as the promise of life, can be considered true already. A negative promise, by contrast, depends upon us; it needn't come true. And because not everything written in holy scriptures is ipso facto true, Daniel's description of the scripture in question, as true, wasn't otiose.

Very nice, but how does that help us with our original problem; the conflict between a God who can show favour (the God of the Priestly blessing), and the God who never shows favour (the God of Deuteronomy)?

The solution, apparently, is simple: "God shows no favour to idolaters, but to Israel, he shows favour". When God is described as showing no favour, it means to idolaters. Jews, and presumably God fearing Gentiles, are different. God can show them favour. And that makes sense of the Priestly blessing. But now the Midrash is a mess. If the answer to our initial question was so simple, then why the irrelevant detour through the death of the wicked, and the book of Daniel?

Thankfully, the Midrash isn't finished. It continues:

The Holy One, blessed be He, said, “Just as Israel favours me, so do I favour them. And how do they favour Me? When a poor person from Israel has four children, he takes one loaf. They sit down and eat all of that loaf, but they are not satisfied from what there is in it, [and yet] they [still] recite a blessing. But the verse [only] says (Deut. 8:10), ‘When you shall eat and be satisfied, you shall bless.’ [Likewise] I shall also favor them, [as stated] (in Numb. 6:26), ‘The Lord lift up His face unto you.’” It is therefore stated (in Lev. 7:11), “This is the law of the sacrifice for peace offerings.”

The Bible doesn't command us to make a blessing after a meal unless that meal left us satisfied. The poor of Israel are never satisfied. They don't have enough food to go around. And yet they make a blessing anyway, such is their love for God. To such a people, God will show favour. And even though a verse is written, telling us that God shows no favour; that verse doesn't have to be true. Or, it doesn't have to be true of us. That will depend. Whether God wants our destruction or our redemption; that's up to us too. God's grace and favour; what kind of relationship with God we have; what type of God He will be to us; it's largely up to us; and so we bring a peace offering, even when we're not commanded to. It isn't a bribe. God isn't fickle. But, if it comes from a place of real religious devotion, then it can have the power to shape our relationship with God; to make certain verses true, and certain verses no longer true, or no longer true of us. A peace offering, or any display of sincere religious devotion, can help us to find favour in the eyes of God.

And when we feel a lack of grace or favour in our lives, the right response, the Midrash would urge us, is to become exemplars of grace and favour ourselves.

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