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Learn about this week’s Torah portion with our Rabbis
Watch the Rabcast for Rabbi Daniel Weiner’s interpretation of this week’s Torah portion, Shemini:
The title of this week’s parsha, Tzav, emerges from the same root as that of mitzvah, translated here as “commandment.” The primary commandment of which we speak is directed first from God through Moses toward Aaron and his sons. In the early paragraphs of Tzav God commands the kohanim to properly carry out their part in the sacrificial service that shapes the core of Israel’s worship. It is direct and deliberate. As we are taught that every single word in the Torah is used with purpose and placed intentionally, “the use of tzav” as opposed to emir or dabeir (speak/say) is used 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 we perform even if we don’t feel like it.” (Rabbi Elyse Goldstein, URJ’s Ten Minutes of Torah, March 21, 2016) Even with the tremendous honor and status that comes with priesthood, perhaps God is anxious that this class of Israelites will balk at the responsibility placed on their shoulders; thus God sets up a power dynamic to make clear these obligations.
The notion of “commandment” is a notoriously complicated idea for modern Reform Jews. Many of us dismiss the notion that we are bound to a set of mitzvot, thinking our progressive approach to Judaism severs the tie our ancestors might have had to a form of halachic observance. Some of us might think that driving on Shabbat or indulging in the occasional BLT sandwich might automatically cancel out any other mitzvot we could potentially observe and so, what’s the point of even trying at all? We find ourselves perplexed by the notion of being “obligated” to do something; after all, we have free will! We’re encouraged to question and wrestle with Jewish text! We are part of a Movement that tells us it’s okay not to believe in God! With stakes that low, who needs a sense of commandedness?
Unfortunately as we well know, this attitude toward mitzvot can and does overlap into our day-to-day lives. While we are likely better at honoring our commitments to work and family than those to our Jewish community, who among us has not questioned or even dismissed our obligation to something – be it a lackluster school assignment, a withering friendship, an upcoming dinner party or participation in a project, to name a few? We often disappear into our own separate universes, separated from a greater whole for varied reasons. We feel disinterested, disappointed, or disturbed by that which is bigger than us. And so, we feel disconnected. We retreat from that to which we are bound.
In this coming week, I encourage you to think about the obligation you have to your Jewish community and your Jewishness. What is the obligation you have to this synagogue, your fellow congregants, or a set of laws and rituals that extends far beyond this generation? A sense of commitment might at times feel burdensome, but it also bears a tremendous sense of power and honor. Obligation can be a transformative act. This coming Shabbat, how will you understand and implement a sense of holy tzav?
Rabbi Jaclyn Cohen
I did not realize until Monday morning of this week – my first in the office as I transition back from maternity leave – that the Torah portion was Vayikra, the opener to the book of Leviticus. These mostly unstructured twelve weeks since our son Avi was born have simultaneously passed in freaky-rapid and molasses-slow succession. Josh and I recently discussed how the period of time after the birth of a child is a little bit like the 1993 Bill Murray film “Groundhog Day;” every morning a repeat of the one before. And yet, those milestones of babydom are some of the most profound, moving moments of your life; for example, a smile has never meant as much as it does when it comes from Avi.
How fitting to begin a new book of Torah this week, one that focuses on the seemingly mundane details of sacrifice – a precursor to our modern Jewish modes of prayer – and the challenges of forming a God-focused society. How poignant that we begin to study this third book of Torah just when we change our clocks to reflect a shift in that much-needed sunlight. How timely to begin this new book of Torah with Purim, Pesach and Spring Break just around the corner and summer vacation looming not-too-far on the horizon. Change is upon us and, to echo the intention of Vayikra, we need order and structure to process what those changes will mean.
Leviticus attempts to give the Jewish people a structure to understand that which they cannot; from the holiness of God’s presence to the complicated inner workings of the human body. On a surface level Leviticus might seem dull or repetitive, but scratch beneath and one finds a treasure trove of details on how to live life as a Jew. While some of that information might feel antiquated or tough to relate to – and indeed, much of it is – at its most basic level, Vayikra is about drawing closer to God, to community, and to the self. Each of us has the ability to take Vayikra’s teachings to heart and absorb what they attempt to teach us about life. As life presents us with its vast array of joys and challenges, it is the structure found in Leviticus that intends to give direction and purpose to our growing Jewish communities. And, hopefully, to a new mother forging a path toward professional parenthood in the years ahead.
He Ain’t Heavy? The End of Exodus
After seemingly interminable descriptions of the materials and design of the Mishkan—the portable worship site for the peripatetic Israelites—the project is finished, and with it the Book of Exodus. The deal is sealed and affirmed as God descends onto the Tabernacle in a cloud by day, a pillar of fire by night, to convey tangible acceptance of the task. God’s manifest presence is described as “kavod adonai.” From the Hebrew root meaning “heavy”, kavod is most frequently invoked as “honor.” One need not be a Midrash-seeking rabbi engaged in continuous interpretation toward sermon writing to make the connection: When we act with integrity and honesty in our intentions towards tasks and one another, we not only bring honor to the moment—we invite God’s indwelling presence into our lives.
Rabbi Daniel Weiner
Israeli poet Yehudah Amichai,after the verse in Micah 4, wrote: “Don’t stop after beating the swords into plowshares, don’t stop! Go on beating and make musical instruments out of them. Whoever wants to make war again will have to turn them into plowshares first.” This beautiful sentiment displays the strong predisposition against warfare felt by the Jewish community, itself the historical victims of violence.
This poem also contains the key to unlocking a verse in this week’s Torah portion. “The posts were four; their four sockets were of copper, their hooks of silver; and the overlay of their tops was of silver, as were also their bands,” we read in Exodus 38:19. Why silver and copper and not a more durable, lasting metal? In addition to their natural beauty, we are taught that these metals were used in construction of the Mishkan due to their unsuitability for weaponry. Our most sacred space itself, in addition to the rituals contained within, are constant reminders of our highest aspiration, that “nation shall not lift up sword against nation nor shall they learn war anymore.”
Rabbi Aaron Meyer