By Bettijane Eisenpreis
The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering….
The titles of the Torah’s parashot do not necessarily reflect their principal themes. Rather, the first or most important word of the early sentences becomes the method of identifying the portion. Parashat Yitro gets its name from Jethro, Moses’ father-in-law (Yitro in Hebrew) because his name is its first word, but its main section is much more significant – the Ten Commandments. The title of today’s portion is “Tzav,” which literally means “Command,” and unlike the title Yitro, it is of great importance.
The word tzav doesn’t occur until the second sentence of the parashah. The first sentence is “Vaydaber Adonai el Mosheh laymor,” if you will excuse my atrocious phonetic transliteration, “And God spoke to Moses saying..” That phrase is repeated so often in Leviticus that it becomes a sort of quotation mark, a “Now I am about to say something.” The second sentence begins: “Command (tsav) Aaron and his sons thus…”
“Tzav” is the imperative form of the verb “to command.” The word “mitzvah,” the noun derived from the verb, means “commandment.” This portion and many other portions in the Torah are full of commandments, including the Ten that have already appeared in the book of Exodus and are repeated in Deuteronomy. According to Jewish tradition, there are 613 mitzvot, 248 of which are positive and 365 negative. Since the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, those mitzvot which refer to Temple worship are no longer applicable. But many are alive and well and still applicable today, in spirit if not literally.
We often translate the word “mitzvah” as “a good deed,” but that is absolutely wrong. Mitzvot are not optional! We are not a religion of Boy Scouts, helping old ladies across the street for some kind of merit badges. Of course we can’t – and don’t even want to perform all 613 mitzvot, but there are still many things we just do because they are right, whether we want to or not. It’s not optional to feed the poor, care for the sick, and try to correct injustice.
My father paid taxes on the interest from his cash coupon bonds, even though no record of that interest was sent to the government. Eventually, the government made those bonds illegal because so many people used the coupons as a way of avoiding taxes. Pop couldn’t understand it. “Those interest coupons are taxable,” he said. “I couldn’t sleep at night if I didn’t pay the government what I owe them.”
Tradition tells us that before we ask God’s forgiveness for our sins on Yom Kippur we must first make a sincere effort to repent for any wrong we have done our neighbor. We are supposed to ask, not once but three times, that we be forgiven for the sins we have committed, either accidentally or on purpose. Only then can we pray for Divine forgiveness.
The next time you go to Temple Emanu-El, look across 65th Street at 838 Fifth Avenue, the apartment building that used to be The House of Living Judaism, the headquarters of our Reform movement. The inscription on it is the answer from the book of Micah (6:8) to the question of what the Lord requires of us. It reads, “Only to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with thy God.”
Those are the ultimate mitzvot! All the rest is commentary.