“‘For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices, but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you.’”—Jeremiah 7:22–23
The Torah portion for this week, Tzav, is from Leviticus 6:1—8:36 and the Haftorah from Jeremiah 7:21–23.
The Talmud teaches that the priests in the Temple were so enthusiastic about serving God that they used to compete with each other for the opportunity to remove the ashes that had built up overnight from the burnt offering. They literally would race up the ramp to the altar to see who would perform this service!
While their enthusiasm for serving God was commendable, the Talmud explains that this practice quickly got out of hand. One time, in his “enthusiasm,” one priest shoved another out of his way, causing the other priest to break a leg. This was certainly NOT admirable. The goal of serving God is to become a better person. That priest had totally missed the point.
This week’s Haftorah can be seen as a warning clause attached to the week’s Torah reading that contained the instructions for serving God in the Temple. The Torah reading described all of the sacrifices that could be brought to God and the closeness that man could achieve with God.
But in the Haftorah reading, we discover that the whole system had become corrupted. The sacrifices themselves had become the focus, instead of service to God. In essence, God says to the people, keep your sacrifices: “Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves!” (Jeremiah 7:21). God has no desire for empty rituals.
So what does God want? He wants us!
While God did, in fact, give the Israelites commandments regarding sacrifices, the sacrifices alone weren’t what He truly desired. “ . . . I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you . . .” As we have seen previously, the goal of the sacrifices was to bring the people closer to God. But the people in Jeremiah’s time had missed the whole point.
While we no longer bring sacrifices to God in the Temple, we can still learn from the transgressions of others and avoid the spiritual pitfalls that have claimed the spiritual lives of many. We must not ever lose sight of our goal to truly serve God – we cannot just go through the motions. This means that when we pray, our prayers have to be sincere and heartfelt. God has no need for lip service. When we study the Bible, the words need to be taken to heart. As importantly, when leading a God-centered life, we have to be careful not to shove anyone else aside or step on others in order to “serve God.” Because true service of God furthers His purposes: “ . . . kindness, justice and righteousness on earth, for in these I delight . . .” (Jeremiah 9:24).