In modern Hebrew, tzav, which means order or command, tends to occur in military or governmental contexts. As such, it evokes guardedness or even anger, our strict obedience or rebellion. And yet, this word's Hebrew root is the same as another about which virtually all Jews feel positively — the word mitzvah. Joyous bar and bat mitzvahs contribute to this positive feeling, but mostly we like doing something when "it's a mitzvah." Rabbis keep pointing out that mitzvah actually means commandment rather than good deed; but underlying the departure from literalness, modern Jews are saying something important, especially important for Reform Judaism. They are pointing to a way of feeling good about doing the right thing, a way of choosing to be commanded.
This week's Torah portion is the second in the Book of Leviticus, most of which attends to matters of ritual observance as officiated over by the priests. Precise specifications for various sacrificial rituals form the content of this portion, which opens with the sentence: "The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: 'Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering.'" Once the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, Torah portions like Tzav challenged the Jewish capacity for interpretation on a metaphoric or spiritualized level. Thinking about how this portion's name relates to the word and idea of mitzvah represents one such spiritualized interpretation.
In recent years, many Reform Jews have been moved to look again at practices and concepts that had been put aside as unduly traditional, formalistic, or restrictive. Gradually, we are finding ways to meet Jewish tradition halfway, drawing it into our lives but on our own terms. Among the traditional ideas that are gaining new resonance, none is more important and promising than mitzvah. We are feeling our way towards a middle position between feeling absolutely free to choose everything about our Jewish (as well as our American) lives and the rejected polar opposite of being commanded by God with regard to every detail. Essentially, we are beginning to enter into committed dialogue with a God whom we don't quite understand and in whom we may not even fully believe.
We may not fully believe or be able to explain, but we have begun to acknowledge our spiritual hungers and to recognize that wide open choices can lead to confusion and emptiness. And so, wary as we are of what Erich Fromm called an "escape from freedom," we are nonetheless looking for guideposts, structures, and concrete actions that can add shape, weightedness, and meaning to our lives. Adopting the full armory of traditional practice is not possible for most modern Jews, but we can gradually take upon ourselves specific practices that, as it were, speak to us and that fit into the overall bearing of our lives and personalities. From the German Jewish philosopher Franz Rosenzweig many of us have learned that a person's "personal ability to fulfill the law must decide. We choose; but the choice is made in absolute honesty and a readiness to increase our responsibilities."
Between the stern imperative of Tzav and the vertigo that comes from spinning in self-inflicted circles, we Reform Jews are journeying forward on a new, middle path. We feel our way towards a sense of being commanded from beyond our sole selves, even while we hold onto our powers of mature judgment. We perform Jewish acts that have been passed down to us across the generations, and in the process we feel good about those acts and about ourselves. Surely God is in that process.
For further reading
On Jewish Learning, Franz Rosenzweig, ed., N.N. Glatzer (New York: Schocken, 1965).
Rabbi Susan Laemmle is Dean of Religious Life at the University of Southern California.
A first glance at Parashat Tzav may cause one to fall into the trap of the "biblical Judaism is irrelevant to my life" school of thought. After all, why should we concern ourselves with the details of the sacrifices our ancestors were required to bring to their priests? It's no secret that we no longer adhere to these practices, that we no longer have priests. But a closer look brings to light several ideas that speak to modern Reform Jews. Taking the parashah as a whole — the descriptions of several types of sacrifices; the explanation of the importance, even sanctity, of blood; and the rituals surrounding the ordination of priests — we observe that Tzav confirms the notion that Judaism has always been evolving, changing, and reforming. Our Jewish identity is forged from our understanding of from where we've come, along with our vision of where we are headed. We Jews have always kept an eye on the past while focusing the other eye on the future. Through the peripherals of both eyes, we create the vision of our Jewish present. Thus Parashat Tzav stands to tell us something of the rituals of our past and hints to important concepts for today.
Rabbi Harvey J. Fields points out to us in his A Torah Commentary For Our Times that there have been many modern interpretations of the biblical system of sacrifice. Rabbis throughout history have grappled with the names of the sacrifices, the order of the sacrifices, the role of the priests, even the description of the altar. Perhaps understanding that our priests concerned themselves with ritual slaughter, burning of entrails and fat, distribution of blood, pouring of oil, etc., forces us to remember that Judaism has emerged from an earth-based life and death reality. We rightfully take pride in monotheism, our gift to the world, our intellectual and philosophical claim to fame. But Tzav reminds us that we are a flesh and blood religion, that we evolved from paganism. Yes, we rejected human sacrifice but, nevertheless, moved slowly from the idea of sacrifice itself.
In Tzav, Moses, paving the way for Richard Simmons, enacts the first fat-free diet when he restricts Jews from eating the fat from several animals. In addition, eating the blood of an animal is absolutely forbidden. We learn that blood is considered to be special, holy. The blood of an animal is its life, its soul. Of course, much of the basis of the laws of kashrut, the dietary laws, spring from this concept. We are commanded to respect the life and special quality of all God's creatures by treating blood in special ways. Yet we are not required to refrain from slaughter. Rather, we use our world for our physical and spiritual survival; and while we use it, we respect it and even protect it. Our ancestors used animals for sacrifices while recognizing the sacredness of the life (soul) of those very animals. We use our world, yet we protect it, we revere it.
Finally, in Parashat Tzav, we witness Moses ordaining Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. Through a grand ceremony, the religious leaders of the day are installed in their lofty positions. How easy it is for those of us who stand on the bimahs of our synagogues as the modern leaders of the Jewish people to relate to the emotion of this scene. We also stood for ordination, we also stepped into leadership positions, we also were blessed with the opportunity to serve our people. Aaron and his sons, the priests of old, served as links between the people and God. Our rabbis and cantors are linked to the Jewish people as we search together for our identity and spirituality. We are all links in the chain of Jewish history, connected to ancestors who brought animal sacrifices to their priests, philosophers who debated the existence of God, pioneers who settled our land, and leaders who fought for social justice. They have made us who we are. In turn, we will impact on what we will be.
For further reading
A Torah Commentary For Our Times, Volume Two: Exodus and Leviticus, p. 104, Harvey J. Fields (New York: UAHC Press, 1991).
Rabbi Ronald Klotz was the beloved camp director of the URJ Myron S. Goldman Union Camp Institute for 36 years until 2011.
Tzav, Leviticus 6:1–8:36
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 781–798; Revised Edition, pp. 686–700;
The Torah: A Women's Commentary, pp. 593–614