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Mitzvah matters

Parshat Tzav

Leviticus 6:1-8:36

by Rabbi David Lyon

In the Torah portion, Tzav (Leviticus 6:1-8:36), more detail is added to the description of sacrifices already mentioned in last week's portion, Vayikra. In addition, we read about the ordination of Aaron and his sons as priests in the sanctuary and of the dedication of the first sanctuary.

Tzav, like other portions in Leviticus, poses challenges for modern Jews, because our relationship with God is not reflected in sacrifices or the role of priests. Nevertheless, our relationship with God is still reflected in the way we understand the words tzav, Hebrew for "command," and "mitzvah." However, mitzvah is not the same thing as today's "random act of kindness" or charitable deed. It is much more. Let me explain.

Some years ago, I was leaving a doctor's professional building following an appointment. It was raining heavily, and I had an umbrella with me, but a woman who was preparing to run to her car did not. I called out to her and asked if she would like me to accompany her to her car. She quickly assessed that I was not a threat to her and she took me up on my offer. I led her to her car and she thanked me. Was it a random act of kindness, a charitable act or a mitzvah?

Perhaps one might call my deed a random act of kindness, but I would not. There was nothing random about it at all. A random act of kindness (RAK) suggests that the deed had nothing to do with the duty that one has to another. As a Jewish person, I have a duty that is present in all my dealings with other people. In fact, that duty extends to my dealings with animals, and the environment, too. If it were otherwise, then my decision to help this woman could be explained as a deed that was unrelated to the coincidence of her being there and my reaction to her plight.

What would it say then about me and the circumstances we often find ourselves in, especially when events seem so random? I'm not prepared to say that everything happens for a reason, because I am not prepared to say that coincidental encounters diminish our duty to each other just because we weren't ready, thus rendering them random. RAK is a clever idiom but it doesn't say enough about the deeds we do for each other and why we do them.

Perhaps one might say that I was charitable, but I would not. Charity is a word that has at its root a Latin word that means to give out of love for someone. Now, the woman was kind enough to say thank your for my help, but it was no reason to conclude that she loved me nor I her. Love had nothing to do with it.

As Jewish person, I have a duty to perform acts of tzedakah, which means to do deeds of justice. That the woman was going to be drenched by the rain, while not as dire as homelessness, was, nevertheless, an injustice that could be prevented. Tzedakah means to do a deed that restores justice where there is none. Poverty, hunger, homelessness and despair represent injustice in our human experience. All that we do to relieve it in people is an act of justice, not love. I don't necessarily know the people I help nor would I presume to love them. And even if I knew them but didn't love them, an act of justice shouldn't depend on my feelings for them.

Tzav and mitzvah mean commandment, given to us by God. As a Jewish person, I can do ethical mitzvot at any time during the day and they are always connected to my duty to my fellow human beings, to animals and the environment. A mitzvah reflects on who I am, and who we are as a community of like-minded people who take ourselves seriously as Jewish men, women and children. The woman I helped in the rain didn't know that I did a mitzvah, but I did and so did God, I believe. That makes me feel better that my deed was recorded, so to speak, as a response to my religious duty, and not just a random act.

Parashat Tzav may tell us only about ancient sacrifices, but the fire that burned on the altar then is still reflected in the fire that burns in us when we bear witness to God's covenant through mitzvot we perform, today. Our sages teach us that we should do a mitzvah for the sake of the mitzvah that must be done, and not for the sake of the reward we receive for doing it.

In my experience, most people who understand a mitzvah don't do it for the reward; they do it for the mitzvah.

David Lyon is rabbi of Temple Shalom in Dallas.

This story was published in the DallasJewishWeek
on: Thursday, March 27, 2003








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