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