By Rabbi Rabbi Steven Pik-Nathan for Reconstructionist Jewish Communities
Olah, Zevach Shelamim and Iraq
As I write this d'var Torah I couldn't help but wonder how I might connect this week's parashah, Tzav, to the war in Iraq. The parashah is a continuation of the details concerning the various offerings and sacrifices made in the mishkan (tabernacle) in the desert, as well as later in the Temple in Jerusalem.
At first glance this seems to have no relationship to the topic of war, except perhaps to discuss the various meanings of sacrifice. However, thanks to some brilliant interpretation by our Sages I believe that there is something that we can learn from this week's parashah. In the Talmud, Ben Bag Bag says of the Torah, "turn it and turn it, for everything is in it." I believe that this is a prime example of the veracity of this statement!
In discussing the offering known as the 'olah' (burnt offering), Rabbi Levi, who lived in the third century CE, commented that 'olah' could also be read as 'alah' which can mean "behave boastfully." Therefore, "This is the law concerning the olah. It shall go up upon its burning place on the altar" can be interpreted as "the boastful person shall be destroyed by fire." He then gives examples, such as the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, who were destroyed by fire because of their excessive pride and hubris.
In analyzing this text the phrase "boastful person" can also be redefined as one who is so focused on his/her ego, or his/her own needs, that s/he only acts in ways that are meant to raise up him/herself. This person will eventually be consumed by his/her needs and ego. One could certainly apply this to Saddam Hussein and how his egotism has led him to become one of the most oppressive and tyrannical rulers of the 21st century. However, I believe we also must look at how our own leadership has been so consumed and blinded by their own sense of what is right that they too run the risk of being consumed, and causing us to be consumed, by the fires of unilateralism and self-righteousness. Though I do consider myself to be a pacifist I also consider myself to be a realist. I am aware that war is sometimes, if not often, necessary. I supported our nation's military intervention in Bosnia, Kosovo and even, to a lesser extent, in the first Gulf War. However, I don't believe that Jewish teaching or other ethical and moral teachings can support the claims that our administration is making for this war. For a much more eloquent discussion of these issues I recommend that you read Jimmy Carter's op-ed in the Sunday New York Times of March 9.