Back to This Week's Parsha| Previous Issues
Torah Attitude: Parashas Tzav: Cautious and eager to fulfill the commandments
The Burnt Offering, more than any of the other offerings, needed extra encouragement due to the financial loss involved. The kohanim throughout the generations would need special encouragement to bring this offering, since they did not have any personal benefit from its meat. Whenever an opportunity for a mitzvah presents itself, one should fulfill it immediately. We must be cautious when appropriate and eager when appropriate. "And remove the Satan from in front of us and from behind us." The Talmud mentions the character trait of cautiousness before eagerness. If one is very eager to cross the road and does not take the necessary precautions, it could be very dangerous. In general, the preferred way to determine what is right is by asking one's rabbi or mentor, or even another lay person whose opinion will be more objective than the person involved. We must always remind ourselves that when we fulfill any commandment it is so much more valuable than any money we can save. "[This] could be compared to someone going into a candy store to buy a snack with a million dollar cheque." No other Festival is so widely observed as Pesach. We must make an effort to apply the same eagerness to observe all other commandments, whenever they present themselves.
In the beginning of this week's Parasha it says (Vayikra 6:1-2), "And G'd said to Moses … 'Command Aaron and his sons … this is the law of the Olah [Burnt] Offering.'" Rashi quotes the Toras Kohanim (1:1) that points out that it is unusual for G'd to instruct Moses to command someone. In general, G'd instructed Moses to speak and give over G'd's instructions. The Toras Kohanim, explains that the Torah uses this expression to encourage a special eagerness to fulfill this commandment. This special eagerness would be needed by future generations since the Burnt Offering involved some kind of financial loss.
In his commentary Gur Aryeh, the Maharal explains that the kohanim exhibited great personal sacrifice when they performed the service in the Temple. During the forty years that the Jewish people sojourned in the wilderness, there was hardly any difference between the kohanim and the rest of the Jewish people. Everyone was sustained by the Manna from Heaven and the water from the well of Miriam. However, once the Jewish people settled in the land of Israel, the other tribes received a portion of the land to develop and earn a livelihood from. Not so the Tribe of Levy. The Kohanim and Levites were expected to elevate themselves and live a life of spirituality in their designated towns. They did not own land of their own but were sustained by the various tithes and donations provided by their fellow Jews. Parts of the donations given to the kohanim were specific cuts of meat from the offerings. However, there was one offering from which the kohanim did not receive any portion of the meat. All the meat from the Burnt Offering was brought on the altar. This, says the Maharal, is the financial loss the Toras Kohanim refers to. That is why the kohanim throughout the generations would need special encouragement to bring this offering, since they did not have any personal benefit from its meat.
This kind of encouragement is appropriate at the moment, when Jewish households worldwide are preparing for Pesach. All the extra expenses involved in getting the special foods for the holiday can be a real financial burden for many families. It is interesting to note that in Parashas Bo (Shemos 12:17) it says: "And you shall safe-guard the matzos." The simple meaning of this refers to the caution needed to be taken when one produces matzah to make sure that it does not turn into chametz. However, Rashi quotes a homiletical interpretation from the Mechilta that points out that the word matzos can also be read as mitzvos (commandments). This comes to teach us, says the Mechilta, that just like one should safeguard all matzos, not to leave them to become chametz, so one should safeguard the mitzvos. Whenever an opportunity for a mitzvah presents itself, we must make an effort to fulfill it immediately.
Cautious and eager
This verse thus teaches both to be cautious when appropriate and to be eager when appropriate. In his famous work, The Path of the Just, Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzatto, paves a way for character building step by step. He bases this on the Talmud (Avodah Zara 20b). The Talmud presents a list of various character traits, of which the first two are to be cautious and to be eager. Rabbi Luzatto (Chapter 6) explains that these two traits really go hand in hand. In regards to prohibitions, we must be cautious and be on a constant watch not to fall into any trap set up by our evil inclination. On the other hand, when we have an opportunity to fulfill a mitzvah we must be eager to do so. However, our evil inclination will try to push us to transgress prohibitions and slow us down and stop us from fulfilling the mitzvos.
In front and behind
We allude to these two approaches of the evil inclination in our evening prayer: "And remove the Satan from in front of us and from behind us." This can be understood to mean that when the Satan encourages us through our evil inclination and pushes us from behind to do what is against the Torah law, we ask G'd to assist us to be cautious and stop what we are about to do. On the other hand, when our evil inclination stands in front of us, and tries to stop us from fulfilling our obligations, we ask that G'd shall help us to be eager to do His will.
Cautious before eager
The Talmud mentions the character trait of cautiousness before the trait of eagerness, for eagerness without first being cautious can be dangerous. As the Talmud (Pesachim 50b) teaches: "Sometimes the eager person will gain and sometimes the eager person will lose." Rabbi Aaron Levin (Ha'drash veha'eeyun) explains that this is symbolized in the laws of baking matzah. The Talmud (ibid 42a) teaches that the water we use to bake matzos must be drawn the night before we bake. After keeping the water overnight, we must bake the matzos in the morning with speed and eagerness.
Crossing the road
This can be compared to someone in a situation where it is not clear how to proceed. Time, place, and many other details can play a role to determine what to do. Just as when one has to cross the road, one must make sure that there are no cars coming. Only then can one cross quickly before the situation changes. So it is with many situations in life. If one crosses the road without taking the necessary precautions, it could be very dangerous.
Ask one's rabbi
In general, when we are in doubt, we should ask our rabbi or mentor, rather than making our own decision. It is better to ask even another lay person, for his opinion will be more objective than the person involved. When Rabbi Chaim of Valozhin wanted to open his yeshiva he first consulted with his great teacher, the Vilna Gaon. The Vilna Gaon advised him not to proceed. When Rabbi Chaim approached the Gaon a second time, he let him go ahead. Apparently, the Gaon felt that Rabbi Chaim was too eager the first time he asked him.
Commandment more valuable
Ideally, we should fulfill every commandment with eagerness to show our appreciation for the opportunity to do G'd's will. But this can be difficult, especially when it is costly to do so. We wonder whether we can afford the extra expenses to live a life of Torah observance. However, we must always remind ourselves that the fulfillment of any commandment is much more valuable than any money we can save. As the Mishnah teaches in Pirkei Avos (2:1): "One should always evaluate the gain of fulfilling a commandment against the financial loss incurred."
Million dollar cheque
The following anecdote clearly illustrates the value of fulfilling a commandment just once. Rabbi Shmuel Greineman assisted the Chofetz Chaim in many of his activities. During the Great Depression, when the financial situation for the Jewish population in Eastern Europe was extremely difficult, many Torah scholars were barely able to put food on the table. One day, Rabbi Greineman approached the Chofetz Chaim with an idea he had thought about. He suggested that he would forgo his reward for putting on tefillin for one day. He would pray to G'd that in lieu of his reward G'd should provide sustenance for all the needy. When the elderly sage heard his assistant's proposal, he smiled and said, "You have no idea what you are talking about. What you are suggesting could be compared to someone going into a candy store to buy a snack with a million dollar cheque, and tell the store keeper to keep the change." The Chofetz Chaim understood the real value of fulfilling a commandment even once. If we internalize this message, it would be a lot easier for us to be eager to fulfill the mitzvos, even when it involves a financial loss.
There is hardly any Festival that is so widely observed as Pesach. Even people, who are otherwise far removed from observing mitzvos, will at great expense make sure to have shmura matzos, kosher wine and all the other things needed to celebrate the Seder night in the proper fashion. The only explanation for this is that, when they grew up, they themselves experienced such an eagerness by their parents and grandparents. This in turn fostered by them a similar approach, as they try to convey this feeling to their own children and grandchildren.
Eager for all commandments
We must make an effort to apply the same eagerness to observe all other mitzvos whenever they present themselves. In this way, we pave the way for our children to live as proud Jews every day of the year. It will no doubt outweigh manifold the cost and effort expended.
These words were based on notes of Rabbi Avraham Kahn, the Rosh Yeshiva and Founder of Yeshivas Keser Torah in Toronto.
Shalom. Michael Deverett
P.S. If you have any questions or enjoyed reading this e-mail, we would appreciate hearing from you. If you know of others who may be interested in receiving e-mails similar to this please let us know at firstname.lastname@example.org .
Shema Yisrael Torah Network