Parshas Tzav & Pesach

Of Commandments and Unity


(This week's parshah sheet is particularly long, and you may be wondering,
"When will I read all of this?" However, next Shabbos, b"H, is Chol HaMoed Pesach,
and you'll have a week off--and time to finish what you don't read this Shabbos!
G-d told Moshe, "Command (tzav) Aharon and his sons, saying, "This is the law of a Burnt-Offering." (Vayikra 6:1-2)
Many commentators stop and ask on this verse regarding the usage of the word "command." After all, everything Moshe was instructed to pass on to either Aharon or the rest of the kohanim were also commandments--why all of a sudden emphasize this point.

In the past, traditional interpretations have been provided to answer this question. However, this year, I am going to use this posuk as an opportunity to discuss the concept of mitzvos themselves, because it is also an excellent lead-in to the Pesach Seder itself.

To begin with, the Talmud makes a comment that we have referred to before, but it is always one requiring contemplation:

Greater is the one who is commanded and acts, than one who is not commanded and acts. (Kiddushin 31a)
For many of us, there can be no better expression of love for an act than doing it as an extension of one's own desire. Indeed, we saw only a few weeks ago how the Jewish people were asked to bring "nedavos haleiv"--"gifts of the heart"--to create the implements for the Mishkan. It is hard to call a gift that one presents begrudgingly as a "gift of the heart," which is often the way one responds when commanded to do something!

According to the Shem M'Shmuel, this inquiry is at the root of the Chacham's (Wise Son) question at the Seder Table, who is grappling with the whole concept of mitzvos, and what they are supposed to mean to him. The Evil son, in contradistinction, has already shaped his view regarding mitzvos, seeing them only for the act they appear to be, and therefore, has begun to discount them (Bais HaLevi; also, see, "Redemption to Redemption: The Seder and Haggadah").

Therefore, says the Shem M'Shmuel (Haggadah), the above quoted Talmudic statement should be the first clue that we don't perform mitzvos because we enjoy them--anymore than we eat an apple because it tastes good. As we quoted last week, any eating we do is to keep our bodies fit in order to serve G-d. As one rabbi said it, "We don't make a blessing in order to become permitted to eat an apple; we eat an apple in order to have permission to make a blessing!" In other words, any physical pleasure we have from doing a mitzvah in This World, or from engaging in a physically pleasurable activity is just a wonderful "by-product" of G-d's beneficent nature (see Kiddushin 39b).

So why do we do mitzvos?

The answer is simple but fundamental: because G-d said so, which is why it is called a mitzvah in the first place. For, in order to perform a "commandment," one must first believe the act is indeed a commandment, which means it was demanded by a Someone or Something else (read: G-d).

We find this idea expressed quite clearly in traditional Jewish law:

There are those who say that mitzvos do not require intention, and there are those who say that mitzvos do require intention while being performed in order to count; thus [the latter opinion] is the law. (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 60:4)
The Chofetz Chaim explains:
"If the person did not have intention to fulfill his obligation at the time of performing the mitzvah, he has not fulfilled his Torah obligation and must repeat the act. Even if he is doubtful about this, if it is a Torah-obligation, he must be stringent and repeat the act ... Therefore, one who blows [shofar] to teach, or blesses after the meal with children in order to teach them, while at the same time needing to say the blessing after the meal though he forgot this, he has not fulfilled his obligation [and must do so again with intention] ..." (Mishnah Brurah 9)
The Biur Halachah continues the discussion in more detail, and adds a very crucial point: One who believes that he or she has no obligation to perform a certain act, but does so for another reason, has not performed the act as a mitzvah.

Which means (and this is really the bottom line), there is no Divine, eternal reward for the act, at least not for the mitzvah per se. There may be reward for not doing a bad thing, or for doing something that benefits society either directly or indirectly--but not for the mitzvah itself. This is what the Talmud says:

... Thus we learn that even a non-Jew who is involved with Torah is like a High Priest (even though he does not have a mitzvah to learn Torah). They retorted, "[Perhaps he is likened to the High Priest, but] he does not receive reward like one who was commanded and does the same act, as Rebi Chanina said: Greater is the one who is commanded and acts, than one who is not commanded and acts." (Bava Kamma 38a)
(It is important to add that only G-d knows what a person truly understands, and why. He takes into account all aspects of our background, upbringing, environment, and experiences, before determining what we merit, and what we do not merit. However, in this discussion, we are only focusing on the reward earned for doing a mitzvah as a mitzvah)

Why? What difference does it make if I do an act because I believe I am performing a mitzvah, or because I just personally value the act?

Explains the Shem M'Shmuel: Because the point of performing a mitzvah is not merely to do a "nice" act. The point of a mitzvah is to do a moral act, which, according to tradition, is another way of saying "because G-d said so." In other words, "morality," from a Torah-perspective, is that which is done because G-d has commanded us to do it (positive mitzvah), or to not do it (negative mitzvah).

Furthermore, says the Shem M'Shmuel, a fundamental aspect of doing a mitzvah is to become a "messenger" of G-d in This World--to act as an extension of His arm, so-to-speak. For that to be so, it has to be clear that we do what we do because it is the will of G-d, and not for "other" reasons.

Therefore, this is also why this week's parshah emphasizes the commandment-aspect of the priestly service. It is natural to be in such a central and holy role, and enjoy it. After all, who wouldn't feel good about being the "conduit" between G-d and the Jewish people? On a level, it is like being a kind of savior, and in spite of all the hardship it entailed and self-sacrifice it demanded, still, one could perform the service as a function of one's own desire.

However, the pleasure of being such a central and crucial role in Jewish life could only be a by-product of what was being accomplished, not a goal unto itself. This was because, to be a "conduit," one has to cancel himself out for the sake of the higher goal.

It is like someone who acts like a human bridge to cover a gap between two precipices, so that others can escape (I once read a story about someone who did this to save the lives of friends). While sprawled out over the gorge, he must allow people to walk over him and treat him like a wood bridge. If at any point he decides that he has had enough, and his own personal pride interferes with what he is doing, the bridge will collapse, and with it the higher purpose of escaping to safety.

This was true of the priestly role as well. In order to "bridge" the spiritual gorge that separates man from G-d, the priest had to spiritually span that gap. This meant canceling out his will to that of G-d's, and becoming an extension of G-d's will here on earth, so that Heavenly-blessing could flow down to the people through him.

And, as a people referred to as a "Nation of Priests," it makes sense that this is true for every Jew regarding every mitzvah he performs, by himself, for himself, or for others. This is what the rabbis teach:

... He used to say: Make His will like your will, so that He will make your will like His will ... (Pirkei Avos 2:4)
Then the mitzvah is empowered to unify the Jew with his Creator.
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"This is the law (Torah) of a Burnt-Offering" (Vayikra 6:1-2) ... This is the law (Torah) of the Meal-Offering (6:7) ... This is the law (Torah) of the Sin-Offering (6:17) ... etc.
Last week, it was mentioned that Avraham asked G-d about what would replace the sacrifices after the Temple was destroyed. Apparently, according to the Zohar, there was a similar dialogue that took place between Moshe and G-d:
"Master of the Universe! That is fine (that sacrifices will bring atonement for the Jewish people) during the times that the Jewish people are living on the land . However, what will they do when they are in exile?" G-d told him, "Let them be busy with Torah, and I will forgive their sins even more than if they brought all the sacrifices in the world." As its says, "This is the Torah of Burnt-Offering ... the Meal-Offering, etc.," (Zohar 1:61)
This Midrash would have been easy to learn and leave, had it not made it sound as if learning Torah is a more effective way to achieve atonement than sacrifices themselves. After all, if this were true, then why bring sacrifices in the first place?

The answer is, learning Torah, at least potentially, is a better and more effective way to effect atonement. Why, Because, Torah is often compared to fire, and fire is always a symbol of purging the bad in order to leave behind a refined material. Furthermore, Torah is also likened to water, and water is a symbol of purification, like a mikvah. Therefore, combined, we have both concepts in Torah learning necessary for atonement: purging and purification, or, Kabbalistitically-speaking, Tziruf v'Libun--Refinement and Whitening.

So the, why did Jews of Temple times bring animal sacrifices, or Meal-Offerings?

Because, there is learning Torah--and then there is learning Torah. There is Torah, the "intellectual and educational" exercise--and then there is Torah, the character-trait builder. There is Torah, which we learn when it is convenient to do so, and then there is Torah which is one's lifeline, without which one cannot go on. It is the latter to which the Midrash alludes, and it is on this level of learning that Torah leads us to true fulfillment, character development, and most important of all: G-d.

However, as is human to do, we lose perspective. What once our ancestors would have died to preserve, many Jews today scream, "It is killing us to preserve it!" What once was our people's greatest love has now become the scorn of millions. Even those who appreciate Torah enough to continue to learn it and live by it, have their limits. It is not always easy today to make Torah the most important possession in one's life.

Which is why one comes to sin in the first place, and which is why one had to bring an animal sacrifice in the second place. It took the sacrificial service, the killing, the blood and all, to make the sinner real with life again, and the opportunity to grow close to G-d. For the spiritually-desensitized, it took that much of an extreme to re-sensitize them to truth and morality.

However, since the time the Temple was destroyed, since we are without the possibility to actually bring sacrifices, the Zohar is reminding us of the Torah's potential to act in place of sacrifices. And perhaps, given the fact that it is one of our only effective ways to achieve such a high level of atonement, just perhaps, we will look at Torah as seriously as we ought to; as seriously as we can.

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If it is for thanksgiving, then with the sacrifice of thanksgiving he should offer unleavened cakes mixed with oil, and unleavened wafers anointed with oil, and cakes made of saturated flour mixed with oil ... (Vayikra 7:12)

"If it is for thanksgiving ..." I.e., if it for being thankful for a miracle that was done for him, like crossing the sea, surviving the desert, being freed from prison, or being healed from an illness--all need to give thanksgiving, as it says, "Let them offer thanksgiving to G-d for His goodness, and for His wonderful works to the children of men!" (Tehillim 107:8). (Rashi)

There used to be a joke when I was in yeshivah, that went something like this:
One yeshivah student to another: "Good Morning! How are you?"
Second Student: "Boruch Hashem!" (literally, "Blessed is G-d!")
First student: "I didn't ask about your religious credentials ... I asked you how you were feeling!"
The point of the joke (if you found it funny), was to indicate to the person that he should have really answered, "I feel fine, Boruch Hashem." Then, the first part of the statement would have acknowledged the question asked, and the second part would have acknowledged and shown gratitude to the Source of health. Instead, what really happened was that both parts were combined into a single statement, "Boruch Hashem"--Blessed is G-d.

"So," you may be thinking, "what is wrong with that?"

Perhaps nothing. On the other hand, there is a qualitative difference between thinking about a miracle that occurred for you, and articulating your feelings about that miracle. Things that pass from our minds to our ears via our mouths tend to impact us more, and when it comes to miracles such as one's health, one can't show enough gratitude to G-d.

Especially when you consider, for example, how many things have to go "right" just to make your heart beat regularly. Sometimes, in moments of extreme illness, I have lied there in bed wondering with consternation, "What if I don't get better, G-d forbid? I mean, who says I have to? Many people don't, you know. How many sicknesses began as simple colds and lead to gross complications, and, in the end, G-d forbid, death? Why should my body fight this thing off? Maybe your number is up?"

One doctor concurred when he commented to a patient,

"You ask me why you're sick? Ask me a more logical question, like, why you don't get sick more often, or why it's not worse than it is! If you consider the myriad of potential disasters lurking within the average 'healthy person,' it is amazing we even survive birth, let alone years of life!"
Of course, many people, sadly, do not. But, though we may feel bad for them, we also continue on with our own lives as if they were the exception, and not the rule. Maybe some, upon hearing about the tragic death of another, feel a sense of gratitude for not suffering a similar fate, and maybe that person even directs his appreciation Heavenward. But if you look around the world, good health is considered as natural as the sun that rises in the east every day, and as natural as aspirin that can cure the common headache.

But how "natural" are those occurrences? I once read an article that questioned the same point:

"Self realization is born and matures in a distinctive kind of awareness, an awareness that has been described in many different ways by many different people. The mystics, for example, have spoken of it as the perception of the divinity and perfection of the world ... We shall ... call it the perception of the miraculous. 'Miraculous' here refers not only to extraordinary phenomena but also to the commonplace, for absolutely anything can evoke this special awareness provided that close attention is paid to it. Once perception is disengaged from the domination of preconception and personal interest, it is free to experience the world as it is in itself and to behold its inherent magnificence. Perception of the miraculous requires no faith or assumptions. It is simply a matter of paying full and close attention to the givens of life, i.e., to what is so ever-present that it is usually taken for granted. The true wonder of the world is available anywhere, in the minutest parts of our bodies, in the vast expanses of the cosmos, and in the intimate interconnectedness of these and all things ... We are part of a finely balanced ecosystem in which interdependency goes hand-in-hand with individuation. We are all individuals, but we are also parts of a greater whole, united in something vast and beautiful beyond description. Perception of the miraculous is the subjective essence of self-realization, the root from which man's highest features and experiences grow." (Michael Stark and Michael Washburn, "Beyond the Norm: A Speculative Model of Self-Realization," Journal of Religion and Health, Vol. 16, No. 1 (1977), pp. 58-59)
Exactly. Part of living with this high level of spiritual consciousness--and enjoying being alive because of it--means maintaining a high level of gratitude for every miracle of life. It means realizing that all of life is a miracle, and that "natural" is just another way of referring to recurring miracles--but miracles none-the-less.

In the "good ole days," we were able to bring a Thanks-Offering to help us do that. Bringing a sacrifice was a very elaborate affair--expensive, time-consuming, and detailed. However, it was also an elaborate experience, one that served to open our eyes to the miracles of everyday life, and thereby enhance our appreciation of the good that G-d does for each and everyone of us.

However, we don't have sacrifices anymore. Now what? Well, as we mentioned already twice before, speaking about the sacrifices can be considered like offering them, as far as G-d is concerned. Therefore, today, when it comes to presenting our version of the Thanks-Offering to G-d, at the very least, let us fully articulate or feelings about the miracle of life, and constantly speak words our gratitude for the good--any good--that G-d, Boruch Hashem, has granted us.

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The Talmud says:
There are two things that do not belong to a person, but the Torah makes him responsible for them as if he owns them: a pit he dug in a public domain, and chometz after the sixth hour on erev Pesach. (Pesachim 6b)
What the Talmud refers to is the following. Even though a public domain does not belong to any one particular individual, if one were to dig a hole in the public domain which ends up causing damage to another, he is responsible for that damage as if the hole belonged to him.

Regarding chometz, the Torah tells us that we are not allowed to own chometz after the sixth hour on the fourteenth day of Nissan, and therefore, will not. However, warns the Torah, if one does not deliberately and halachically dispose of any chometz that belonged to him until the forbidden time erev Pesach, the Torah will hold him culpable for keeping chometz on Pesach.

That a person is responsible for damage due to a pit he dug in a public domain is perfectly reasonable. That the Torah commands a Jew to relinquish all ownership of chometz during Pesach, especially given all of chometz's symbolic meaning, and holds him responsible for not doing so, is also reasonable. However, what is not obviously logical, is the Talmud's need to teach both laws in one breath. In other words, is there any other connection between these two, seemingly different laws that can provide an insight into the holiday of Pesach? (After all, it is that time of year to ask all kinds of questions ...)

To answer that question, we have to ask another one: Does a public domain belong to no one in particular, or, to everyone in particular?

"What," you may ask, "is the difference?" The difference is "partnership." If a public domain is a joint partnership, then every individual to which that specific public domain is relevant owns a piece, albeit a small one, of every part of the public domain--including the pit he digs.

However, if that were true, then the Talmud should not have stated that the pit does not belong to the one who dug it, which seems to imply, even partially. If so, then this means the man is not being held accountable for his property that has damaged another, but rather, for having committed an irresponsible act against the public itself--the collective whole--of which he is an integral part.

"How does this concept apply to the holiday of Pesach," you should be asking.

The answer is, because there is an uncanny insistence on unity and collective responsibility during the week of Pesach. We don't sense it as much in our time, because we no longer go through the procedure of being listed as part of a group for a certain Pesach-Offering, nor do we "stuff" ourselves onto the Temple grounds as part of one of three large groups that simultaneously offered the Pesach-Offerings. However, had we lived during those times--achdus--national unity and the concept of "every Jew is a guarantor for his brother" would have been real for all us--intensely real.

Therefore, though it is true that finding and demolishing (or even selling) chometz is a personalized experience. However, the actual carrying out of the mitzvah and the keeping of all the laws of Pesach (and all of Torah for that matter) is not; it is, instead, a collective, national experience. And, therefore, when even one single Jew is negligent in disengaging himself from his chometz according to law and tradition, even only out of ignorance of the laws, it affects all Jews. That's right--all Jews!

Because, despite all of our arguing, internecine and bitter fighting, and outwardly-revealed "dislike" of one another, we are still one people.

I'll say it again: one people.

Or better yet, like one family. In a family, there are parents and children. To the children, each child is just one of many, different types of members of a family, each destined to break off and go in its own direction. There might be sibling rivalry, and in some cases, unfortunately, dislike for one another.

But to the parents, it is always only one family, no matter how many children there may be, or how different each child may be from the other. Should the children grow up, get married, and move away to different parts of the world, still, to the parents it is always one family. In fact, it often seems that a good large part of being a parent is just making sure the family remains this way.

From our point of view, the many disparate parts of the Jewish people may as well be different nations. However, to G-d, our Father in Heaven, it is always only one family, one Jewish people.

Let this year's Pesach bring with it a collective sense of responsibility, and a de-fragmentation of the Jewish people. As we prepare ourselves for erev Pesach, the time, traditionally, that we offered the Pesach-Offering, may we merit to know another kind of "eruv"* Pesach, one that has the power to fuse together various private properties into one collective, unified domain filled with an eternal sense of brotherhood.

(*an "eruv" combines many properties into one larger "private" domain for the purposes of carrying on Shabbos)

From myself and my family,
Good Shabbos, and Chag Kosher v'Samayach,
Pinchas Winston

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