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.