At the opening of our parasha this week it says: “God told Moses, ‘Command Aaron…’” This week’s parasha, Tzav, the second in the book of Leviticus, which is the third of the five books of our Torah, highlights the notion of being commanded. In ancient times, and still for some today, there is a sense that there is an external commander requiring us to do things. When people no longer hold to that position, has religion become meaningless and our moral compass gone askew?
Throughout the Torah we are commanded to do all kinds of things, and commanded as well to avoid all kinds of things. While the Torah does not present a legal system, but rather laws interspersed through narrative, over time, a system of legal commands has been distilled from it. The first legal compendium is the Mishna, finalised in around 200 CE, and further elaborated in legal codes written from around 1,000 CE. The assumption underlying this system is that God created the world and then singled out the Jews through the gift of Torah to be the ones to perform an extensive system of mitzvot, commandments.
It took a long while to enumerate the mitzvot, but now we have developed a system of 613 mitzvot that govern our actions, 365 “you shall not” and 248 “you must”. Many of them, including most of those discussed in the book of Leviticus and especially in our parasha, are in abeyance, as the Temple has been destroyed, the priests no longer have a locus to perform their service, and thus we no longer worship God through animal sacrifice. There is a debate in our tradition whether, should the Temple be rebuilt, we would reinstitute the priesthood and animal sacrifice, and a fervent group of Jews in Israel and around the world works to make that happen.
Yet a more problematic question arises concerning the system of mitzvot and its ground assumption of God’s external and exclusive authority when we realise that some mitzvot are morally reprehensible these days. This week, celebrating Purim, we have read the Book of Esther and the story of Haman, the descendant of Amalek. We are reminded of the command to genocide Amalek, one of the 248 positive mitzvot. While theoretically in abeyance, as we cannot at this time identify Amalek, the commandment motivated Baruch Goldstein to murder 29 Muslims in the Mosque in Hebron on Purim Day in 1994. Further, in just a couple of weeks, we will read the commandment to put to death those men “who lie with a male as one lies with a woman”, a command that has contributed to great discrimination against people on gender issues. These examples show that the system of mitzvot does not in contemporary eyes elicit necessarily moral or exemplary behavior.
Using a positive historical approach to the system of mitzvot, we see that the notion of there being 613 mitzvot (only mentioned once in the Talmud) is actually a rubric, a way of discussing how humans should behave. It was written during a time, as was the Torah, in which humanity understood God as other, outside, transcendent. Now, probing our Judaism and our heritage, we understand God in different ways, knowing that the “one that is” must by definition be part of us as each of us. All that is, is part of it. That is, the notion of there being an “external commander” no longer holds with many of us, and we are not fearful [as are others] that without an external commander “all hell will break loose.” In fact, many today now look at human behaviour and perceive that those who believe in an external commander actually rely on their traditions to follow commands to do that which is evil.
So where does this leave us in a Torah reading that speaks all of being commanded? We must acknowledge that God is the word that we use for the ultimate mystery of life, which binds us together and continues to unfold with us. Our words of Torah are an approach toward that oneness, an attempt to develop a relationship with it. For the most part they are beautiful and inspiring – but not always. We do not need ancient teachings to know the difference between right and wrong; in fact, sometimes as noted above they can lead today in the wrong direction. Rather, we study to the best of our ability those teachings to see how they can continue to inspire us to live a life that is good, true and holy. Our sense of being commanded does not come from the outside in, but rather, from our inner being, calling us to be responsible for and connected with something far grander than our selves.