This year, Parashat Tzav is read on Shabbat HaGadol, the great Sabbath preceding Passover. It is so called because we find in this week’s haftarah, from Malachi 3:23, “Lo, I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the great (hagadol) and awesome (hanora) day of the Lord.” With only a week before Passover, and out of great concern for the meticulous preparation that the Festival requires, it was once common to use the pulpit on this Shabbat to deliver a lengthy sermon to outline the rules for Passover. Today, preparations and last-minute questions for Passover are easy to access online for those who are relatively familiar with them and for those who will be leading a Seder for the first time.
All of us are commanded to observe the Festival with a seder and Festival services on the first and last days of the seven-day holiday (Exodus 12:14-17). But, are we commanded just as God told Moses, at the beginning of this week’s parashah, Tzav, “Command Aaron and his sons … ” (Leviticus 6:1), or are we commanded differently?
While the parashah outlines details of the sacrifices (for example, olah and musaf) that are obligatory on Festivals, we should ask ourselves what it means to be commanded in our time and place. We simply can’t assume that though we are commanded to make Passover, that we hear the commandment in the same way that our ancestors did in previous generations. The following three rabbinic scholars, in their generation, laid the foundation for us to identify how we might hear the commandment, the mitzvah, which was spoken by the Commander, the Metzaveh.
Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman (z”l) wrote that the voice of the commanding God can be heard as the “Commander,” the Metzaveh behind each mitzvah. He writes, “It all depends on whether I am ready to live my life in relationship to God, in response to Him (sic), in my acceptance of His being Commander and of me as His covenant partner.” It is as if Schaalman, himself, stood at Sinai, and said as the Israelites did, “naaseh v’nishma,” We will do and we will hear; commonly translated as, “All that the Eternal has spoken we will faithfully do!” (Exodus 24:7). Schaalman emphasized, “The number of mitzvot I thus choose to perform is not nearly as important as is the fullness of my awareness and intention, for it is likely that in time I may hear the authentic ‘voice of God’ in many more mitzvot than at first I could have imagined.”1
Rabbi David Polish (z”l) found meaning in mitzvah through the history and shared experiences of the Jewish people. He explained, “When a Jew performs one of the many life-acts known as mitzvot to remind himself (sic) of one of those moments of encounter, what was only episodic becomes epochal, and what was only a moment in Jewish history becomes eternal in Jewish life.”2 For example, in the singular moment of the ritual lighting of the Sabbath candles or participating in the Passover seder, we’re connected with Jews everywhere in the world, today, and with those who came before us in the past.
Therefore, for Polish, the source of mitzvah flows not only from a single commanding voice, but also from the sheer power and enormity of history, which persists in the ways we continue to do what we do. He concluded, “We are called upon to be in the world. Mitzvot enable us momentarily to transcend the world and, strengthened, to return to it as we must.”3
Finally, Rabbi Roland B. Gittelsohn (z”l) wrote from a naturalist’s perspective in his commentary on Schaalman and Polish. Gittelsohn didn’t deny a Metzaveh as the source of the mitzvah in historic encounters between the Metzaveh and the Jewish people, but he made room for the Metzaveh to be a “Spiritual Energy, Essence, Core, or Thrust of the universe; not a discrete Supernatural Being.” He asked, “For the religious naturalist, who is the metzaveh? Answer: reality itself.” For the naturalist, mitzvot represent “the difference between talking or philosophizing about Judaism and living it. They bind him (sic) firmly, visibly, to his people and his tradition. They speak to him imperatively because he is Jewish and wants to remain so.” 4
Still others might feel commanded by their personal duty, rather than by an Eternal Commander (Metzaveh) to demonstrate our people’s legacy of and duty to the cause of freedom. Whatever the source of one’s motivation, it is inextricably bound to a unique moment in our collective narrative. Giving it expression through traditional symbols at Passover, even when it’s woven into a modern context in contemporary Haggadot, enables us to continue seeing ourselves as though we were once “slaves in Egypt,” too; and, that our duty is to bring the power of that redemptive moment into moments in need of redemption, today.
The Book of Leviticus will always challenge us with the meaning of ancient rituals, prescriptions, and remedies. They were an ancient prescription for holiness found in the ways that the community responded to God’s command. That we are commanded, today, is an assumption we’re willing to embrace. What we hear is a matter of autonomy afforded us by Reform Judaism. How we respond to what we hear is also a personal part of being choosing Jews. In addition to the Four Questions at the seder, which ask and answer how Passover night is different from all other nights, we might also ask how this night is not different from what it has been for all the generations as we pause in our family’s seder to ask the familiar questions and to respond.
1. Rabbi Herman E. Schaalman, “The Divine Authority of the Mitzvah,” Gates of Mitzvah: A Guide to the Jewish Life Cycle, ed. Simeon J. Maslin [New York: CCAR Press, 1979] pp. 100-103
2. David Polish, “The Source of the Mitzvah,” ibid. pp. 104-107
3. David Polish, “The Source of the Mitzvah,” ibid. pp. 104-107
4. Roland B. Gittelsohn, “Mitzvah Without Miracles,” ibid. pp. 108-110
Rabbi David A. Lyon is Senior Rabbi at Congregation Beth Israel in Houston, TX. Rabbi Lyon serves on the Board of Trustees of the Central Conference of American Rabbis and chairs its professional development committee. He can be heard on “iHeart-Radio” KODA 99.1 FM, every Sunday at 6:45 a.m. CT, and is the author of God of Me: Imagining God Throughout Your Lifetime (Jewish Lights 2011) available on Amazon.com.