“Precisely” Parashat Tzav – HaGadol 5775

It’s almost upon us. After weeks of preparation, primarily in the form of cleaning, Pesach is nearly here. This Shabbat is Shabbat HaGadol – literally “the Great Shabbat” before Pesach. And this week we also happen to be reading Parashat Tzav, a Parasha that consists primarily of technical details concerning sacrifices. What is the connection, if any, between Shabbat HaGadol and Parashat Tzav?

The most immediate connection is a prohibition that the meal-offerings discussed in Parashat Tzav must not contain any sort of chametz [Vayikra 6:9-10]: “[The meal-offering] shall be eaten as unleavened bread in a holy place… It shall not be baked leavened” But that would be too easy. Rivers of ink have been spilled explaining why meal-offerings must come specifically in the form of matzo. I’m thinking about something else.

Last week we discussed the final instructions that Am Yisrael received in preparation for the exodus, instructions that included the commandment to slaughter a lamb, to smear its blood on the doorpost, and then to barbeque it and eat it  before dawn. After Moshe transmits these instructions to Am Yisrael, the Torah testifies that they did precisely as they were told [Shemot 12:28]: “So the children of Israel went and did; as Hashem commanded Moshe and Aharon, so they did.” Rashi comments that, while laudable, this was clearly impossible: Am Yisrael received the commandment to take the lamb on the first day of the month of Nissan. They did not have to actually take the lamb until the tenth of the month, and they did not have to slaughter it until the fourteenth. How could the Torah commend Am Yisrael for actions they not yet performed? Rashi answers that “since they accepted upon themselves [to do it], Scripture credits them for it as if they had [already] done [it].” Their willingness to carry out Hashem’s will was sufficient.

The last part of Parashat Tzav discusses the consecration ceremony of the Mishkan, as well as the consecration of Aharon and his sons as Kohanim. The ceremony required eight days. On the eighth day, if all went well, Hashem’s Divine presence would come to rest in a corporeal Mishkan. After the first day of the ceremony Moshe tells Aharon [Vayikra 8:35] “You shall stay day and night for seven days at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. You shall observe Hashem’s command so that you will not die, for so I have been commanded.” The Torah testifies, in words that echo the words uttered on the eve of the exodus, that Aharon did precisely as he was told [Vayikra 8:36]: “Aharon and his sons did all the things that Hashem commanded through Moshe”. Rashi adds that “they strayed neither to the right nor to the left”.

Really?  Did Aharon and his sons really do precisely as they were commanded? The Torah seems to tell a different story. On the eighth day of the consecration of the Mishkan two of Aharon’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, offered a “strange fire” to Hashem. As a result of this breach Hashem killed them on the spot. The Ramban is cognizant of this and he notes that the Torah never says that Aharon and his sons did “precisely as they were commanded”. It says that they did “all the things that they were commanded”. They left nothing out. Tragically, Nadav and Avihu added some of their own innovations and they paid for this with their lives. So while they were commended for the rules that they followed, they were killed for the rules that they added.

How about the Jews that stood ready to leave Egypt: did they really perform precisely as they were commanded? Apparently they did, because Hashem tells Moshe [Shemot 11:17] “As for the Children of Israel, not even a dog will bark, in order to show how Hashem differentiates between Egypt and between Israel”[1]. But even if every Jew did as he was commanded regarding the Paschal Lamb, their willingness to carry out Hashem’s will was was short-lived indeed. As soon as Am Yisrael cross the Red Sea their obedience gets thrown out the window. They complain every time they are hungry or thirsty and they threaten to return to Egypt. When they receive the manna they disregard Moshe’s explicit commandment not to look for the manna on Shabbat. And to top it off they end up worshiping a Golden Calf, a sin for which we are still being punished to this day.

The previous Lubavitcher Rebbe, Rav Menachem Mendel Schneerson ZT”L, writing in a sicha from 1966, analyses the wording in Ha Lachma Anya, an Aramaic portion of the Pesach Haggadah read immediately before the children recite the Ma Nishtana. The Rebbe finds the last two sentences particularly troubling: We conclude Ha Lachma Anya with the words “This year we are here but next year we will be in the Land of Israel. This year we are slaves but next year we will be free”. These words make no sense. With a few exceptions, every Jew is free to board a plane and to come to Israel. Thirty-three years ago I did precisely this. Further, doesn’t Pesach celebrate our freedom? Why are we pretending that we are still today slaves in Egypt?[2]

The Rebbe teaches that the redemption from Egypt was incomplete. The redemption took the Jews out of Egypt but it did not completely take Egypt out of the Jews. As a result of a century of bondage, Am Yisrael possessed a slave mentality that they could not fully shake. Each and every one of their sins in the desert can easily be shown to be a result of a slave mentality. So of use was the redemption? The Rebbe answers that the exodus from Egypt opened up the possibility of redemption. As slaves under Pharaoh, Am Yisrael could never give fully themselves over to Hashem. As free men, they were given the challenge of navigating their own lives. If they chose wisely, they could complete the redemption. Each year we recite those last words in Ha Lachma Anya to remind ourselves that we’re not there yet. While we have returned to the Land of Israel after two thousand years, the majority of World Jewry has chosen not to live there. And as much as we Israelis celebrate our independence, the State of Israel is highly dependent upon the support of the Nations of the World, particularly the United States. The past few months should be sufficient proof that we are not yet in a position to do without their political and financial support, and for this we bear great consequences.

And yet, we were lauded for doing “precisely as we were commanded”, once, thirty-five hundred years ago, even though we have faltered copiously ever since. The message is clear. When Am Yisrael did precisely as commanded, they opened up the possibility of perfection. But Judaism is not about perfect people doing perfect things. Judaism is about imperfect people doing imperfect things, while continually striving for perfection. Our success is not guaranteed. We will falter and we will slide, but make no mistake, we will get back up. Yes, in many ways today we are still slaves. But if we try to do precisely as we are commanded, if we look neither to the left nor to the right, no matter how enticing the scenery, then next year, or sometime in the future, we will be free.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Kasher v’Sameach,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5775

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Nechemiah Uriel ben Tzippora Hadara and Moshe Dov ben Malka

[1] This proof is slightly problematic in that this particular verse precedes the tenth plague. Hashem predicted that no-one will die, even though saving one’s self required positive action. If a person were to choose through his own free will not to smear the blood of the lamb on his doorpost, then he would have died along with the Egyptians. However, it seems clear that no Jews died during the tenth plague, just as predicted. A potential proof is the Midrash that states that only twenty percent of Am Yisrael left Egypt. The other eighty percent died during the plague of darkness. Had Jews died also during the tenth plague, the Midrash would have indicated this. V’ein kan makom leha’arich.

[2] Rav Goren teaches that the Pesach Seder is a recreation of the night of our exodus from Egypt, in which we began the night as slaves and ended the night as free men. The Rebbe is taking this question in a very different direction.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over thirty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including three briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. Ari is a highly requested speaker, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science". Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA, Canada, UK, South Africa, and Australia. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2000 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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