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.
Rabbi Elyse Goldstein is the founding rabbi of City Shul, downtown Toronto's new Reform congregation. Before that, for twenty years, she was the director of Kolel: The Adult Centre for Liberal Jewish Learning. She is the author/editor of four books on women and Judaism (published by Jewish Lights Publishing).