The Vessel and the Flame

Parashat Tzav 2018
Rabbi Esther Hugenholtz

The Vessel and the Flame

Last week, I talked about the single word of the opening of the Torah portion and the book of Leviticus: ‘Vayikra’. Vayikra literally translates as ‘and He called’. I used ‘Vayikra’ to talk about heeding our calling in Judaism, inviting us to uncover our sense of purpose, meaning and mission in the contemporary Jewish experience, especially in the light of demographic challenges. I have the presumption (perhaps of folly and youth) to believe that many Jewish institutions are for the most part engaging in a topsy-turvy approach. They are focusing on funding and programming, obsessing over intermarriage and assimilation. None of these make for inspired Jewish living – as we say in Dutch ‘fear is a poor counsellor. Instead, they signal a spirituality of scarcity where we should be modeling a spirituality of abundance. Judaism, dear friends, is not a zero-sum game.

Knowing our ‘calling’ in any life situation, including our Jewish identity, is the first step of purposeful living. The next step is to understand what our obligations and commitments are in light of discovering that sacred purpose. This week’s portion, Tzav, picks up from where Vayikra left off: ‘tzav et Aharon v’et banav lemor, zot torat ha’olah’. On the surface of it, this is yet another opening statement detailing the minutiae of the sacrificial cult.
‘Command Aaron and his sons, saying, this is the law of the burnt offering.’ This would be a perfectly factual and acceptable translation. In context, the portion talks about the different kinds of offerings our ancestors brought, providing us a detail-oriented user manual for how to practice the ritual cult. Yet, this word ‘tzav’, related to the word ‘mitzvah’ and the verb ‘letzaveh’ is unique. The word ‘mitzvah’ is not, of course: the Torah is littered with it and so are our blessings: ‘asher kid’shanu b’mitzvotav v’tzivanu’ – ‘Who sanctifies us through Divine commandments and commands us to…’ Yet seeing ‘tzav’ used here is unexpected, just as last week’s using the verb ‘likro’, to call, from ‘vayikra’ was unexpected. The Torah’s run-of-the-mill way to communicate Divine will to Moses is ‘vayomer Adonai el Moshe lemor’ – ‘and the Eternal said to Moses, saying’. There seems something intentionally focused and forceful to the verbs ‘likro’ and ‘letzaveh’ that it is worth exploring.

Why do we need to be reminded of the fact that we are ‘commanded’? Commandedness is not an easy concept to grasp: spiritually or emotionally. Many of us are accustomed to calling the shots in our own lives. Can we relate to this idea of intrinsic obedience? If anything, even the word ‘obedience’ may set our teeth on edge (and rightly so). We chafe against it, push back against it, try to defy or negotiate it. We may not always be so comfortable to accept authority in our lives, especially in the name of religion and that skepticism and doubt is healthy.

At the same time, the genius of the Torah reading cycle is that we always read the beginning of the book of Leviticus around the time of Pesach. In fact, today is Shabbat haGadol, the ‘great Sabbath’ (named as such due to its special Haftarah from the book of Malachi), the very last Shabbat before Pesach starts. In traditional communities, this is a time where rabbis dispense guidance about the halakhic observance of the holiday: how to prepare one’s home, what foods to purchase, what classes as chametz (leaven). Like the sacrifices of Leviticus, the unspoken power of Passover lies in the minutiae of its observance. Yes, it’s stressful and kind of mad (and impossible to explain to non-Jews) that we scour our pots and pans, spend too much money on kosher items, clean our homes and abstain from the delicious carbohydrates that ordinarily bless our tables. And yet, we do it. We do it with joy, with resentment, with ambivalence, with enthusiasm, with nostalgia, with confusion or with understanding, but we do it, each of us in our own way. Commandedness features heavily in the observance of Passover; it is the vessel that holds the fire of the holiday’s sacred intentions. Without the matzah and maror on the table, the Seder would just be the reading of an old story. It is the commandedness, the state of being ‘metzuveh’, that carries the symbolic and transformative weight of the experience. Without that framework, Pesach would feel very different.

The question of Jewish continuity, the question of our own deep purpose is predicated on the question of commandedness, of commitment. Whether we do that in a halakhic framework or a post-halakhic framework, whether we do that as religious Jews or cultural Jews, we cannot get away from the depth of the Jewish imperative.

Commentaries on the verse ‘tzav et Aharon v’et banav’, ‘command Aaron and his sons’ don’t only affirm the ‘rightness’ of being commanded but delve into its deeper psychology. ‘Ein tzav ela lashon zarus meyad v’dorot’ – ‘this language is only used for the urgency of now and of future generations’, Rashi notes. We need to connect with the urge, the fire, of what we are doing, and then the vision for the future will follow suit.

There’s a passage further on in the portion that fills the vessel of commandedness. ‘Eish tamid tukad al mizbeach, lo tichbeh’ – ‘A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar, it shall not go out.’ (Lev. 6:6) The Jerusalem Talmud, in Tractate Yoma 4:6, comments on this:

“Constantly” [tamid]—even on Shabbat; “constantly”—even under conditions of ritual impurity; “it shall never go out”—also not during the journeys. What did they do with the fire during the journeys? They placed over it a copper bowl.

There is a sacred tension between the copper bowl and the fire, between the vessel and the flame. Incorporating a divine imperative into our thoughts and lives is hard, even or especially if we try to philosophically contemplate it. But commandnedness is the vessel for the fire of our intentions. The Jewish Project is a project that requires guidelines and structures. The thickness of our community relies on the cohesion that we can build. Sacred Jewish practice is practical and earthy and yes, at times a little strange. Yet it is this very thing that makes Judaism tangible and sensory, emotionally relevant and spiritually deep.

I would invite all of us to think of the place of the imperative in our Jewish lives. As we gather at our Seder tables in a week from now, I hope that we can all be blessed to hear our calling, to reconnect with what we love about being Jewish and celebrate our commitment to this beautiful path in redemptive freedom.


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