To Obey or not to Obey, that is the Question.
Tzav means “command”. Our Creator was commanding His people Israel and here, specifically Moshe, his brother, Aaron the Cohen HaGadol, and his sons. This one word alludes to the fact that we have Free Will. God wouldn’t command us to do anything if we couldn’t make a choice. And what was their choice? As is ours today… to obey God or not.
Every single day we are faced with making the right choices. God told us, in Deut 30: 15-16: “See, I have set before you this day life and good, and death and evil ; I command (tzav) you this day to love the LORD your God, to walk in His ways, and to keep His commandments מִצְוֺתָיו (referring to the Ten which was all we had at that time) – His statutes וְחֻקֹּתָיו and His ordinances וּמִשְׁפָּטָיו; then you shall live and multiply, and the LORD your God shall bless you in the land where you enter to possess it.” Sounds simple so why do we rail against our God? Doesn’t He want only the best for us, as any loving parent would?
Obedience is one of the most difficult battles that we humans have on this earth. From the moment we realize that we are a separate entity from our mothers, generally around two years of age, we quickly declare our right to choose… and what do we generally choose?… to say “NO” which is why it’s been nicknamed “the terrible twos”. Isn’t that how we all are? Our Creator commands us to do things and our first instinct is to find reasons to say no; we would rather do it our own way. And He allows it.
Our Haftarah portion this week is Malachi 3 in which God told us that He was going to test us. He said:“Bring your entire tithe into the storehouse, so that there may be food in My house, and test Me now in this, says the LORD of hosts, and see if I will not open up for you the windows of heaven, and pour out for you such blessing, that there shall be more than enough.”
However, the response from many was: ‘It is useless to serve God; and what have we gained by walking in abject awe of the LORD of Hosts?”
BUT it continues”… those who revered the LORD spoke with one another; and the LORD listened and heard, and a book of remembrance was written before Him for those who revere the LORD and who esteem His name. And they shall be Mine, says the LORD of hosts, on that day which I appoint as my particular day; and I will spare them, as a man spares his own son who serves him.”
How do we serve the LORD? In Parashat Tzav, we read about how Aaron and his sons had to perform the five types of offerings, about their ordination, (smicha), the preparation of the Tent of Meeting to be a holy place, (separated), as well as regulations on the eating of meat. That was their place of service. What is ours? How can we be obedient to perform our service?
Are there benefits to being obedient to our God even if we question Him, even if we don’t agree with Him, or even understand why He is asking us to do certain things? As we read each instruction (each Torah) that our Creator gave to Moshe and Aaron, did they make sense? Yet they were commands to be obeyed, some even at the threat of death.
I have lived on both sides of this issue and have even felt the taste of death, so I know that it is far better to obey. The first 42 years of my life, I obeyed no one’s advice but my own. I thought I knew best. The consequences were devastating for me and my family. I had lost everything. So, when I first read Malachi, 33 years ago, I decided to test Him as He said. And although there were times I didn’t know if I had enough money to pay my rent, I continued to tithe. My daughters and I were living in a small, sparsely furnished apartment but when I finished packing to move to a larger place, there was hardly any space to move around. I had tested Him and He had proven faithful to His Word. Over the years, His blessings were and still continue to astound me in every area of my life, even when I struggle. Obedience comes out of a sense of sincere thanksgiving, knowing that we have been forgiven. The consequence of our wrong choices humble us. Moshe and Aaron obeyed because they had been humbled.
Moshe was commanded to gather Kehal Israel together before the Tent of Meeting, depicting the unity of the people who were to stand as the new nation before their God. This picture is vital for our future and our protection as a unified nation. A people divided cannot stand. Sadly, today, we see so much division in Israel by a people who was called to be the example for all the nations of the world. When the people would gather at the Ochel Moed, they were given the opportunity to bring their various offerings. The rest of the community would be their witnesses. They would all testify that the person wanted to make restitution and know that he was forgiven by God and then able to start again.
God was setting up the order for the various ceremonies to be performed, not in a haphazard way but in stark contrast to the pagan rituals where altars were built anywhere and everywhere, whose temples with their large variety of gods were sought out to fulfill any of the wishes of their followers. The Creator was bringing order out of chaos. He was continuing the pattern which He began with the first verses of Bereshit. Most people rebel against the idea of gathering together at a set time, in a set place, presenting themselves well-dressed before God. They prefer to be lone rangers who tell God how things should be done. There are so many reason that living in community is vital.
At this point in Tzav, the Israelites were getting ready to celebrate Pesach in the desert. It was more than a declaration of freedom. Every family would take a thanksgiving offering (a Shelamim) to the one God who had saved them from the plagues that hit Egypt. They were so grateful that they had been forgiven for their first great failure… the golden calf incident … and they were humbled enough in that moment to be obedient, even if only for a moment in history. Notice that anyone who was obedient to Moshe’s order to put the blood of the lamb on the doorposts and lintels, would see their first-born son (not daughter) and first-born male of his flock spared from death. The crux was obedience not sacrifice for sin. No one in that household asked God to forgive them. That had already been done and they were giving Him thanks.
Next week we will celebrate Pesach with our families and friends; it is our New Year. During the Seder we will tell the Exodus story as we have done for 4000 years. Pesach the first of the Moedim, God’s Appointed Times, serves as a prototype for what our people would experience throughout the ages. We would dwell in a foreign land, for a set period of time, surrounded by idolatry and enticed by its ways; after all, they look so good; their gods can be seen and touched while ours is invisible; and only too late do we find out that this lifestyle comes at a great cost. By then, we have already been enslaved to its culture and leaders who suddenly turn their eyes upon us to see that we are “not” one of them. They are reminded that we serve a different God, even if we don’t acknowledge Him ourselves. They turn against us, persecute us, expel us from their land or try to annihilate us. We lose everything except the One who formed us…our Creator. He hears our cries and comes to our rescue. We serve Him for a time out of sheer gratitude but then the cycle repeats. How do we stop this vicious circle? We choose to STOP. Simple but not easy.
Here we are in 2023, when anti-Semitism is once again on the rise and we ask ourselves how this can happen only a short 76 years after the last Holocaust. It seems that as a whole, we have forgotten our Creator. Our children are not interested in Him; Artificial Intelligence is far more exciting and enticing. We can talk to them about anything but His Commandments. They prefer any false ideology over the Torah which to them is outdated. God’s Moedim have become days of families gathering together over a meal to discuss anything but Him. Shabbat is the day to do whatever we want, except assemble together to honor and give thanks to the God who is always there for us. Passover, for many means the day when a Jewish man became a god, died to give his life to save them from their sin instead of being a day of thanksgiving and obedience to our Creator for freeing us so that we can learn to love Him and our neighbor as we love ourselves.
We no longer have a Mishkan, we no longer have to bring animal offerings, we no longer live in the desert, but we can search for the timeless principles that will serve us today. Our challenge lies in the fact that over the centuries, theology has come to play such a large role in the interpretation of the Scriptures. We need to remove our religious glasses to be able to read the words for what they say, not what others tell us they say.
How many of us are willing to stand up against the self-proclaimed experts and cry out, NO this is not what the Torah says!? Our opinions may differ from those of our religious leaders but we do have the right to express them. That is why Yeshua got into so much trouble – he stood up against the experts of his day and spoke his opinion gleaned from the written Torah, not just the “writings of the sages” alone, which, by the way, he didn’t completely reject. But when they added or subtracted from the Written Torah, he stood his ground.
Today those of us who stand for the principles of the Torah and refuse to bow to the human gods of this world, find ourselves in the same battle that Yeshua faced two thousand years ago. The Haftarah portion Malachi 3 ends with… “I will send the prophet Elijah to you before the coming of the awesome, fearful day of the LORD. He shall reconcile parents with children and children with their parents, so that, when I come, I do not strike the whole land with utter destruction.” Elijah’s empty seat at our Seder table testifies that one day we will all be reconciled. Let’s begin that process today by being grateful and obedient.
Chag Pesach Sameach and Shabbat Shalom