This week’s portion, Tzav, has the same Hebrew root as “mitzvah.” While many Jews understand the word mitzvah as a “good deed,” the word actually means “commandment.”
There is a significant difference between a good deed and a commandment.
Rabbi Ḥanina teaches that a person who performs a mitzvah because he/she is commanded to do so receives greater credit than someone who performs it out of his/her own free will [Kiddushin 31a].
For many American Jews, the concept of being commanded to do anything may be an uncomfortable notion. We view ourselves as autonomous, able to make our own decisions, doing what we think is right. But last year, in a physical therapy program, my exercise coach taught me a very significant phrase: “no pain, no gain.” If I would have selected only those exercises which I found convenient, I would not have gained much. It was the exercises that were rigorous and difficult that actually helped me to achieve my goals. The same idea can easily be applied to achieving our highest spiritual potential as well. All good things require a certain degree of exertion.
If we want to reach a substantial spiritual goal then we need to see every mitzvah as having great value.
The Baal Shem Tov points out that the word mitzvah is closely linked to the Aramaic word tzavta,” meaning “connection.” A strong “connection” with God emerges when we learn to value each one of the 613 commandments; the more difficult the commandment, the more meaningful our relationship with the Holy One becomes.
Just as we would take on a burdensome, demanding task for a person we love, our relationship with God is no different.
At the core of Leviticus is the call to holiness. “You shall be holy for I, the Lord your God, am holy” [Leviticus 19:2]. Holiness was often manifested through various animal sacrifices [Lev. 1:2]. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik taught that “the highest sacrifice is not when you offer an animal. … The highest sacrifice is when man offers himself.”
Rabbi Soloveitchik emphasized the importance of committing ourselves to a higher value and purpose. When we observe mitzvot, commandments that might not be comfortable or convenient, we make the ultimate sacrifice to God by truly giving of ourselves.
Tzav introduces us to kashrut, the Jewish dietary laws. For the first time we are warned against consuming the blood of any animal and prohibited from eating animals that have not been slaughtered in the proper ritual fashion [Lev. 7:22-27].
We do not know the reason for kashrut. It falls into a category called hukkim, a set of commandments whose reason is obscured [Numbers 19:2]. We observe such ancient rituals as an illustration of our fidelity to God, as a means of adding holiness to our lives. In doing so we demonstrate that Judaism is not merely confined to a few holy days a year, nor is it confined to specific sacred spaces, such as synagogues or yeshivot. Rather, we make our lives sacred by transforming a seemingly mundane activity (eating) into a sacred endeavor on a regular basis.
Kashrut is not always easy to observe. At times it may even serve as a barrier to full integration in the larger society, but it is a prime example of a sacrifice we make, surrendering some of our desires in order to achieve a meaningful relationship with God.
We’re told, “a perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out” [Lev. 6:6]. The Talmud teaches that even though the fire descended from the heavens, it was still incumbent upon people to offer it. In today’s day and age, it is incumbent upon each one of us to create a perpetual flame within our souls, one that burns brightly forever. This requires an intensely passionate commitment on our part, together with a deep sense of devotion to God.
We accomplish this task by finding fulfillment in observing mitzvot. Our sages impress upon us the concept of “mitzvah goreret mitzvah, one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah [Avot 4:2].
Every action we take for the Holy One should lead us to another mitzvah, and another. We must always be eager to do more of God’s commandments for it is they that elevate us, set us apart as a holy nation living in God’s glory and ultimately enable us to become better human beings.
Rabbi Shlomo Segal is the spiritual leader of Kehilat Moshe of Sheepshead Bay. He conducts a weekly podcast on the Torah portion at kehilatmoshe.org/segals-sentiments.html.
Shabbat Candles: 6:51 p.m.
Torah: Lev. 6:1-8:36
Haftarah: Jeremiah 7:2-8:3; 9:22-23
Havdalah: 7:53 p.m.