4 ‘children’ of the commandments

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This week’s Torah portion is Tzav, Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36.

Tzav means “command.” It’s the imperative form of the word mitzvah, which means “commandment” and not “good deed.” This popular misconception likely reflects a modern-day unease with both the language and mindset of commandedness and obligation.


Yet, commandments make up the backbone of Judaism. Indeed, God first communicates to human beings in the form of a command: “The Lord God commanded Adam” (Genesis 2:16). As Rabbi Aharon Lichtenstein points out, “A Jew’s life is defined by being commanded” (“By His Light,” page 49).

How, then, might we relate to commandments despite the contemporary unease with being told what to do? With Passover one week away, I’d like to suggest four different “children,” or conceptual frameworks, for relating to commandments, inspired by a midrash (Sifrei Numbers 1:2) that explores four different understandings of the word tzav.

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1. “Rabbi Yishmael says [that tzav conveys] something that must be done now and forever in the future.”
One way of thinking about commandments is that they create a connection across generations by providing a link between past, present and future. When everything seems to be changing, it’s important to remember that there are truths that will outlast any particular trend.

The danger of this approach is that it can be a way of escaping the present by focusing on preserving the past or ensuring its continuity simply for continuity’s sake. So we must make sure that these commandments reflect a truth that applies first and foremost to the now.


2. “Rebbe (Rabbi Judah Hanasi) says that tzav always conveys a sense of warning.”

This approach is rooted in external motivation and is the way most people relate to rules: “Do this, or else.” External motivators like guilt and fear can certainly compel one toward an intended action or inaction. Ultimately, though, this is not the ideal way of relating to commandments. The rabbis of the Talmud expound on the verse: “One who delights greatly in [God’s] commandments” (Psalms 112:1):

“Rabbi Elazar explains: ‘The person delights in God’s commandments and not in the reward for doing them. And this is the same as we learned in a mishnah [Ethics of our Fathers 1:3]: ‘Antigonus of Sokho would say: Do not be like the servants who serve the master on the condition of receiving a reward; rather, be like the servants who serve the master not on the condition that they receive a reward’”(BT Avodah Zara 19a).

3. “Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira says that tzav always conveys a sense of motivation, as in, ‘And command (tzav) Joshua and strengthen him and fortify him’ [Deuteronomy 3:28]. From here we learn: ‘We strengthen only the [internally] strengthened,’ and ‘We impel only the [internally] impelled.’”

As opposed to Rebbe’s approach above, here Rabbi Yehuda ben Beteira sees commandments as providing additional motivation for something we are already internally motivated to do. The language of commandments, then, simply adds a level of gravitas to our quest toward self-actualization.

4. “Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai says that tzav always deals with monetary loss.”

This approach understands obligation as inextricably tied to sacrifice. We are commanded to do what we otherwise wouldn’t choose to do. At a time when individual choice is often the top priority, this approach is both the most challenging and the most relevant. Always choosing what we want to do often comes with a cost, including a sense of community, a sense of purpose and a sense of transcendence. Commandments remind us that it’s not all about us — and that shift in mindset may be well worth the expense.

Rabbi Aaron Potek is community rabbi of Gather DC.

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