Shabbat Tzav: The Boss of You

אש תמיד תוקד על המזבח לא תכבה

eysh tamid tukad al hamizbe’akh lo tikhbeh

Fire shall be kept continually burning on the altar; don’t let it go out (Lev. 6.6)

The parashat hashavua we immerse ourselves in all this week is called Tzav, literally “order” or “command” in the imperative form. It’s quite abrupt: one explosive sound. HaShem instructs Moshe: “order/command Aharon” to do the following. As often happens, HaShem commands Moshe, and Moshe commands Aharon.

Midrash tells us that the two brothers had a good relationship; Aharon, the eldest, seems quite graceful in accepting that his little brother is closest to HaShem, chosen for leadership and for a relationship with the holy unlike any other. Still, we might wonder how often their sister Miriam, in the middle of the birth order, ran interference for them. Moshe is depicted in midrash as jealous of Aharon, who returns the favor in a Torah account in BaMidbar.

Any latent tension in the relationship between the Prophet and the High Priest would be highlighted by this week’s parashah. Little brother is ordering big brother around, using the word at the root of our term mitzvah – divine command. To tzav is to impose a mitzvah. Aharon might have bristled, being only human; after all this is his little brother, unquestionable conduit to the Eternal, bossing him around!

The root meaning of mitzvah, tzav, is indeed an imperative: we Jews are to obey. In that way, we are all in Aharon’s shoes, high priests of ourselves, instantly dismissive in our Western philosophical way of the idea that someone else can command us concerning that which is holy.

It’s an interesting quesiton: who or what can tell you what to do? Before whom or what must you bow your head in acceptance? Most interestingly, can you identify whatever it is with the holy?

What commands you? The alarm clock, for one, on a work day. The instructor who assigns learning; the boss who assigns work. All these commands are clearly utilitarian, and we choose to obey within a limited context in which we can see the benefit to ourselves. Is that the holy in our lives? hopefully not!

Before what do you bow in acceptance? 

The philosopher Emanuel Levinas, true to his Jewish tradition, suggested that, ultimately, we are commanded by the Other: when we truly become aware of the fact that Other People Exist – not as extensions of infantile ego, not pawns on our chessboard, not less than us and, actually, not to be understood by us. He suggests that we cannot but bow before mystery, and our own inadequacy in its face. We owe the Other our appreciation and our respect because we cannot truly understand our own lives, and our own place in the world, until we see that we are not central; others exist and take up just as much space!

Recall the assurance HaShem gives Moshe: whenever we seek the holy, we should look for it in the space between the heruvim, the molded figures on the Ark. In rabbinic interpretation, we are those figures, and HaShem is present between us when we are able to truly see each other. 

There is a way here of accessing holiness, if we can get past our own recoil. Holiness not in some beautiful quiet transcendent forest or mountaintop? Holiness in the difficult meetings we have with each other? Chance encounters, necessary confrontations, random social groupings?

A teaching from the never ordained Talmudic teacher ben Zoma, our teacher in humility, goes like this: איזהו חכם? הלומד מכל אדם – “who is wise? the one who learns from everyone” (Pirke Avot 4.1) and sure enough, Jewish tradition holds that whenever two are engaged in learning together, HaShem is present. 

We can make every single encounter with another into a moment of holiness if we keep this teaching on our hearts. It doesn’t matter a single solitary iota what the Other is bringing you, if you set youself to be alert to what you might learn.

In our parashah, the priests are commanded to keep a fire burning on the altar all the time; “it shall never go out.” (Lev. 6.6) On this Shabbat may you keep aflame on the altar of your heart the fire of curiosity, of humility, of a willingness to bow before the mystery of that which we do not know so that we might learn it. And most of all, gratitude to the ever outflowing Source of Mystery, Source of Learning, Source of Life in which we share this spiritual journey.

Shabbat shalom

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