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Torah Sparks

April 8, 2006 - 10 Nisan 5766

Annual: Leviticus 6:1 - 8:36 (Etz Hayim, p. 613; Hertz p. 429)
Triennial: Leviticus 7:11 - 7:38 (Etz Hayim, p. 617; Hertz p. 432)
Haftarah: Malakhi 3:4 - 24; 3:23 (Etz Hayim, p.1296; Hertz p.1005)

Prepared by Rabbi Michael Gold
Congregation Beth Torah, Tamarac, FL

Department of Congregational Services
Rabbi Paul Drazen, Director


Parashat Tzav continues the section of Sefer Vayikra that focuses on the detailed laws of sacrifice. God commands the priests to keep a fire burning on the altar at all times. Next, the priest is told to dress in special linen clothing and carry the ashes to a sacred place outside the altar. Commentators have said that the care given to the ashes teaches that something that was once holy, even if it is no longer useful, still contains a spark of holiness.

Various sacrificial laws are given to the priests. Only the male kohanim can eat from the sacrifices. There are special laws to prepare the grain offerings given to the Temple. Similarly, there are special laws regarding the slaughter and eating of the burnt offering and the offering of well-being.

The second half of this portion contains the rituals for the formal inauguration of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood. The ritual was seven days, reflecting the importance of the number seven in Jewish law. The priests were dressed in special clothing, went through special purifications, and brought special offerings. They were anointed with oil, a ritual that would eventually develop into the notion of the Messiah (literally the mashiach, or anointed one.)

An important part of these weeklong rituals is that Moses placed blood on the earlobe, right thumb, and right big toe of Aaron and his sons. Perhaps the symbolism is that religious leaders are to dedicate their ears (what they hear), their hands (what they do), and their feet (where they go) to the service of God.

Issue #1 - God is in the Details

"And he shall put off his garments, put on other garments, and carry forth the ashes outside the camp to a clean place" (Leviticus 6:4)


  1. God commanded Aaron to dress in special clothes and remove the burnt ashes from the daily whole offering. Rashi teaches, "The word tzav (command) is used when special encouragement is needed, both immediately and for future generations. Rabbi Shimon said such encouragement is especially necessary when there is a financial loss." What was the priest's financial loss? (Perhaps the priest did not benefit from the burnt offering; it was burnt in its entirety. But he still had to carry out the ashes. How could that be understood as a financial loss?)
  2. Clearing out dirty ashes does not have the glory or panache of most of the other activities with which the high priest was charged. It is one of those necessary chores that must be done, even if it is unpleasant. Without it, the altar would fill with ashes and soon be unusable. Do we always appreciate the number of details necessary for us to perform mitzvot; the number of details needed in our daily activities?
  3. This year the reading of Parashat Tzav corresponds to Shabbat HaGadol; Passover begins Wednesday night. Perhaps it is worthy to ask, what is the difference between hametz and matzah, between leavened and unleavened, between what we are forbidden to eat and what we are commanded to eat on Passover? If we mix flour and water and let it sit for 17 minutes and 50 seconds before baking is finished, it is kosher for Pesach matzah and eating it can be used to fulfill a mitzvah. If we mix flour and water and let it sit for 18 minutes and 10 seconds it becomes hametz, and eating it is a serious transgression of the Torah. What a difference a few seconds can make! The difference is in the details.
  4. Many of us love the broad scope of Jewish tradition but hate the details of Jewish law. Are details important? Is God in the details? The poet George Herbert wrote in the seventeenth century, "For want of a nail the shoe was lost, for want of a shoe the horse is lost, for want of a horse the rider is lost, for want of a rider the battle is lost, for want of a battle the kingdom is lost." What is the point? If you accept the idea that the details are important, how do you avoid getting too caught up in the details, to the point that the details become the total focus of observance?

Issue #2 - What is a Mitzvah?

"The Lord spoke to Moses saying, Command Aaron and his sons..." (Leviticus 6:1-2)


  1. Ask the average non-Orthodox Jew what the word mitzvah means, he or she will probably say "good deed." The real meaning is "commandment." Why are many Jews uncomfortable with the concept that mitzvah means commandment?
  2. If a mitzvah is a commandment, who is the Commander? Did God literally command us to keep the 613 mitzvot? What about mitzvot that appear to us to be ethically troubling? Conservative Judaism views much of Torah as a combination of the hand of God and the hand of people. Dare we ask which mitzvot are God's commandments and which are human constructs? Is there anything you believe God wants you to do as a Jew? Is there anything you believe God forbids you to do as a Jew? How do you differentiate between the God-given commandments and those of human design, when both are venerated by tradition?
  3. Rabbi Hanina taught that to perform a mitzvah because we are commanded is higher than performing a mitzvah simply because we feel that it is a good deed (Kiddushin 31a). This sounds strange to modern ears. We value autonomy and choice, picking those mitzvot we find spiritually meaningful, that we consider good deeds. In our celebration of freedom, can we still hear the voice of the commanding God? Is a volunteer position less worthy than a paid position? Is a volunteer position done because you are expected to do it less worthy than one done solely out of the goodness of your heart?

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