“Tzav/Command- Learn Hebrew!”
By Rabbi Anne Brener, LCSW, AJRCA Professor of Ritual and Human Development
Having learned to be Jewish as English speakers, we are, in many ways, deprived of essential understandings of the fundamentals of Judaism. This week’s parsha is a good example of the limitations that come when we don’t encounter the Torah in its original Hebrew.
We are now in Tzav, the second parsha of Vayikra/Leviticus. Vayikra provides a manual for priestly behavior built around the precisely delineated sacrificial system. These arcane rituals only appear relevant today when we encounter some of the key vocabulary found in the parsha, and throughout Vayikra, in Hebrew rather than English.
This book, located at the center of the Five Books of Moses, is also known as “Torat HaCohanim/The Instructions (or Rituals) for the Priests.” Everett Fox says that the central theme of the book of Exodus is the question “is YHVH in our midst or not?” He sees the building of the Mishkan as an attempt to ensure the presence of God. All of the ritual activities, says Fox, including the building of the Mishkan, the clothing worn by the priests, and the sacrifices offered, were attempts to bring the people close to God. If this is the theme of the Book of Exodus, then the Book of Leviticus can be seen as a manual for insuring that closeness by detailing the rituals to be performed in the Mishkan and later in the Temple. If we only read the Torah in English, this effort at facilitating and maintaining closeness to God might be missed completely.
This parsha’s name, Tzav, shares its linguistic root with the word mitzvah. A common root, appearing in the Torah about 300 times, tzav is the imperative form of the word usually translated as “command.” Its cognate, mitzvah, is usually understood as “commandment.” However, another translation of these words may reveal a more central meaning of Jewish spiritual practice, both in Biblical times and today.
The Aramaic word tzavta, with the same root, means, “connection” as well as “to attach” or “to join,” and “companionship” or “personal attachment.” When the two understandings of words, built on the root tzav, “command” and “connect,” are in dialogue, conflating to establish a unified field of meaning, they provide insight into both the keva/form, of mitzvot and the kavanah/intention of their practice. They give us both instructions for and an understanding of the purpose of ritual: A mitzvah becomes an opportunity to create a venue, through delineated ritual action, for connection to YHVH. It is a kind of “mishkan of action” that can become a dwelling place for the Shekhinah. When a mitzvah is performed, it becomes a place to join with YHVH.
Understanding words with the root tzav as meaning “connection” as much as “commandment” links it with another Hebrew word found repeatedly in the Book of Vayikra: korbon. Korbon, usually translated as “sacrifice,” is one of the central concerns of Leviticus, which is replete with details for the performance of sacrificial rituals.
But “sacrifice” is not the best translation of korbon. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, a 19th-century German rabbi and pioneer of Modern Orthodox Judaism, disputed the common understanding of the word “sacrifice” as “giving something… of value to one’s self . . . for the benefit of another.” Nor, he said, is it “a gift in response to a desire or requirement, that satisfies the one to whom it is given.” He asserted that “bringing close” was a more precise translation of korbon. Said Hirsch, the root of the word for sacrifice means:
…”to approach,” “to come nearer,” [“to be related”], so as to create a close relationship with someone. Therefore, one who brings a sacrifice should come in closer relationship to God.
One who brings a sacrifice, says Hirsch, “desires that something of him/[her]self should come in closer relationship to God.” Exploring the connection between these two words for connection, mitzvah and korbon, highlights this interpretation.
Perhaps this understanding of these two key words in this week’s parsha, also provides an illustration of what is our primary spiritual goal, as revealed by the centrality of the Shema in our tradition. Could the embrace between the human and YHVH that is sought through the actions prescribed by the mitzvot and korbonot be an illustration of the Oneness that we affirm when we say the Shema? This understanding of Adonai Echad gives us a fluid understanding of YHVH as a goal and a process rather than the solid and anthropomorphic sense of “God” that is portrayed in English.