Parashat Tzav continues the Levitical listing of sacrificial rituals begun in last week's parashah and discusses how to present the offerings, what the various kinds of offerings are, and the anointing and ordination of the priests. The parashah also explains the Levitical duty to keep a perpetual fire burning on the altar to kindle what we know today as the ner tamid — the eternal light over synagogue arks that reminds us of this continual fire.
It's the first word that interests me, though: tzav, "command." When God speaks to Moses, the Torah commonly uses two other words, emor, "speak to" and dabeir, "say." Yet this week's parashah opens with one stark word: tzav, "command." It's a much stronger word and one that implies urgency.
Rashi explains that the Torah uses the emphatic expression, tzav, to warn the priests to be especially careful in their service in the Mishkan. He teaches that the word tzav exhorts the priests to follow these instructions miyad u'lidorot, to perform them "immediately" themselves, and then to command "future generations" to do the same.
Why would the priests need this kind of admonition? Rashi goes on to quote the midrash Sifra, Torat Kohanim 1:1: "Rabbi Shimon said: There was a special need for the text to urge zealousness in any case where there was monetary loss." Sifra explains that the priests' livelihood was based on receiving a portion of sacrifices that were brought on a regular basis, but the first offering discussed in the parashah, the olah, was wholly burnt, with nothing edible left for the officiant. In this case, the priests would have to have total enthusiasm for the service they were rendering, with a low expectation of reward or compensation. In other words, the Torah uses the word tzav as opposed to emor or dabeir to motivate the priests to do something they otherwise might not have wanted to do. That's the classic definition of a commandment: an obligation that we perform even if we don't feel like it.
Tzav is the root of the word mitzvah: "commandment." Too often we translate that word mitzvah from its Yiddish context, as "good deed," like "do a mitzvah — take out the garbage." Unless you are commanding your son — which you may just be doing — it seems we may have raised a generation of kids who don't understand the meaning of mitzvah, commandment. And this notion of religious obligation is exactly what Tzav is trying to teach us. It's a notion that many Jews continue to struggle with, no matter how much we say mitzvot are at the heart of what we do. Many of us have not come to peace yet with the difficult notion of commandment.
We love to do mitzvot together — at synagogue, on retreats, at youth-group gatherings. But many Jews today do not do any mitzvot on their own at home. When and where do we hear the call of Tzav? Do we ever feel religiously "compelled"? Many of our congregations will say the Mourner's Kaddish without a minyan, because fewer Jews feel "obligated" to come to a daily service — even when in mourning, even when a yahrzeit date comes around. Are members of the ritual committee obligated to actually attend the services they are meeting about? Is anyone obligated to do anything except pay their dues?
As a theist who puts God in the center of the mitzvot, while still a Reform Jew who does not accept Torah as the literal word of God, I ponder what role God plays in the conception of mitzvot. Why do we do some of God's will and not all of it? How do we know what is God's word and what is not? We feel sure that God does not want us to stone homosexuals and really doesn't care whether or not we mix wool with linen. We feel equally sure that Shabbat is part of God's plan. How do we differentiate? Is God's word just the things we like? We have made God's will those mitzvot that we can "midrashize" and in which we can find the "deeper meaning" — the ones we can use to teach spiritual lessons in adult education: celebrating the festivals, showing compassion to animals, observing Shabbat. The ones for which we cannot find spiritual vocabulary are discarded as "clearly" human adaptations or societal biases. Is there a higher power calling out to us, Tzav? Or just calling out a divine "maybe"?
A Statement of Principles for Reform Judaism, adopted at the Pittsburgh Convention, Central Conference of American Rabbis, May 1999 states the following:
We are called by Torah to lifelong study in the home, in the synagogue and in every place where Jews gather to learn and teach. Through Torah study we are called to (mitzvot), the means by which we make our lives holy. We are committed to the ongoing study of the whole array of (mitzvot) and to the fulfillment of those that address us as individuals and as a community.
This is a remarkable statement of obligation: that we shall see all things through the lens of Torah first and foremost, and as a result, hear its tzav clearly.
Buried near the end of Parashat Tzav, amidst detailed descriptions of the priestly garments we find a tantalizingly occult relic from the priesthood: the Urim and Thummim. These were divinatory tools the High Priest would consult when the human capacity for decision making was lacking. A close reader of the text will have already noticed their appearance in Parashat T'tzaveh in Exodus, where the priestly garments are first described:
Inside the breastpiece of decision you shall place the Urim and Thummim, so that they are over Aaron's heart when he comes before the Eternal. Thus Aaron shall carry the instrument of decision for the Israelites over his heart before the Eternal at all times (Exodus 28:30).
Of the priestly accoutrements depicted in our parashah, the Urim and Thummim remain the most mysterious, for very little is known about how they were used. They do, however, point to the human heart's yearning for reassurance from the Divine. We see such yearning again in I Samuel where the Urim is listed alongside dream interpretation and consulting a prophet as sanctioned forms of communication with the Divine (I Samuel 28:6).
It is tempting to tie this all up in a nice package, with a moral and a lesson and a practical takeaway, but this is one of those Torah moments that elicit more questions than answers. We humans have a tendency toward cynicism and fear when faced with the unknown, but our parashah offers up these ancient, mysterious tools as an antidote. The existence of the Urim and Thummim offers us a hint as to how our spiritual ancestors sought information from the Divine, and invites us to continue that search in our own lives.
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
Haftarah, Jeremiah 7:21-8:3; 9:22-23
The Torah: A Modern Commentary, pp. 983-985; Revised Edition, pp. 701-703