Titzaveh: Why Should We Observe Mitzvot?

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Shabbat shalom, and if you are reading this the day I have posted it, Purim Sameach!  


The name of this week’s Torah portion is תצוה “Tetzaveh,” which comes from the same Hebrew root as mitzvah and means “you will command.”  


Why should we observe the Torah’s commandments?  The traditional Jewish reason couldn’t be simpler: because G-d, our Creator, said so.  But over thousands of years, many Jewish scholars have offered additional or alternative reasons. These include honoring our covenant at Sinai; societal preservation and welfare; personal health; furthering Jewish tradition, continuity and distinctiveness; and, of course, maintaining Jewish values and standards, such as preserving life and the ethical treatment of others.  


Without discounting or minimizing any of these or other reasons, I find the mitzvot’s role in promoting character development to be especially appealing.  For example, the prohibition against gossiping aids humility, and the prohibition against recreational hunting reduces the affinity for violence.  Positive commandments such as "Love Your Neighbor as Yourself" and giving tzedakah also build character, as well as helping others.  


Our Torah portion provides at least two examples of mitzvot which have been interpreted for character development.  The first mandates that when Aaron, the High Priest, officiated in the sanctuary, he would wear a robe hemmed with bells of gold, so that their sound would be heard when he entered and when he left.  (Exodus verses 28:31-35) This would seem a straightforward and limited mitzvah that would have no application today, and certainly not affect the rank-and-file Jew’s required behavior. 


But that is not how our traditional has viewed it.  


According to the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 21:8), when Rabbi Yochanan was about to go in to inquire about the welfare of Rabbi Hanina, he would first clear his throat, in keeping with the Torah verse "And [the sound] -- his voice -- shall be heard when he goes in" 


The Talmud (Pesochim 112a) also teaches us, from this verse, that we must knock before entering a room. Rabbi Yochanan learned from this the practice of always knocking on the door of his own house before entering, and this was one of the seven directives that Rabbi Akiva gave to his son Rabbi Yehoshua. "Don't enter your own house suddenly (that is, without knocking); all the more so, the house of your neighbor."


In the second example from this week’s Torah portion, the priests were commanded to wear linen breeches from the hips to the thighs to “cover their nakedness” when they approached the altar or entered the Tent of Meeting. (Exodus 28:42-43).  We can easily imagine that if they had ascended steps without any “underwear,” their strides would have been lengthened and their “nakedness” exposed.  Yet we know from two Torah portions ago that the altar did not have steps, it had a gradual incline.  


Rashi, citing the Mechilta, explains:  


Had there been steps, the priests would have widened their paces; and although it is not an actual uncovering of nakedness, for the priests wore breeches, nevertheless the widening of one's paces in ascending and descending steps is akin to uncovering nakedness and this would be considered acting toward the altar in a disrespectful manner. From here we have a kal vechomer: [a rule of interpretation], "The stones of the altar have no understanding or sensitivity to shame, nevertheless the Torah says that since they fulfill a need you must not act toward them in a disrespectful manner. How much more so should you not act disrespectfully towards your fellow man who is an image of your Creator and is sensitive to his shame.


About this Rabbi Zelig Pliskin commented, “This statement speaks volumes on the Torah’s attitude toward man. We must treat our fellow man with more respect than we would the altar in the Bais Hamikdosh. Anyone visiting the Kosel Hamaravi (Western Wall), which has less sanctity than the altar, will have a glimpse of this level of respect. If someone were to sling mud at the Kosel, everyone present would run to stop him. How much greater is our obligation to prevent someone from slinging verbal mud at another person!”  


Thus, the rabbis extrapolated from a commandment about priests wearing breeches when officiating at the altar to everyone respecting each other through their speech. 


There are many other mitzvot that seem impractical, unnecessary, or even ridiculous when taken only at face value.  Why should we knock before entering our own home?  Be forbidden from cursing the deaf, who can't hear us do so?  Obliged to thank inanimate objects, such as our car when we arrive safely or the automated voice on our cell phones when it answers a question.  Because we are creatures of habit. The mitzvot train us to be considerate, respectful, humble, and grateful.  


As I noted at the beginning of these remarks, the name of this week’s Torah portion is תצוה “you will command.”  G-d commanded Moses to bring clear oil made from beaten olives for lighting and to keep burning the נר תמיד  ner tamid, the Eternal Light.  The great 19th century Torah scholar Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, commonly known by his work as the S’fat Emet, interpreted this as a command to “bring the mitzvah into the souls of Israel so that they themselves become mitzvot.”  


And at Deuteronomy 10:13, the Torah states:


לִשְׁמֹ֞ר אֶת־מִצְוֹ֤ת יְהוָה֙ וְאֶת־חֻקֹּתָ֔יו אֲשֶׁ֛ר אָנֹכִ֥י מְצַוְּךָ֖ הַיֹּ֑ום לְטֹ֖וב לָֽךְ׃

“Keeping the Lord’s commandments and laws, which I enjoin upon you today, for your good.”


I’m not suggesting that we look only inward for reasons to observe the mitzvot, but if we do, we will certainly find them -- character development and spiritual refinement.  Things for which I hope we all strive. 


For more information about this and many other Jewish ethical topics, please visit theethicaltorah.com


Shabbat shalom and thanks for reading this. 



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A bird that you set free may be caught again, but a word that escapes your lips will not return.
Jewish Proverb