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Parashat 03/26/2010

Parashat Tzav

submitted by Robert Rabinoff

I heard a beautiful lecture from R. Shlomo Riskin, given on Shabbat HaGadol (the Shabbat before Pesach) last year, and it has relevance to a verse in this week’s Parashah.  In verse 6:5 the Kohanim are commanded:

The fire on the Altar shall remain burning on it, it shall not be extinguished; and the Kohen shall kindle wood upon it every morning.  He shall prepare the elevation-offering (‘olah) upon it and shall cause the fats of the peace-offering (shelamim) to go up in smoke upon it. (Artscroll’s translation)

Now according to our tradition, a heavenly fire descended and lit the pyre at the initiation of the altar in the desert, and this same heavenly fire remained on the Altar throughout the 40 years in the desert, the 400 years or so of the sanctuaries in Shiloh, Nov and Giv’on, and the 410 years of the First Temple that King Solomon built.  The question then arises: If a fire from heaven continually kept the offerings alight on the Altar, what need was there for the Kohanim to bring wood and light their own fire?

This question, seemingly so simple and obvious on the surface, is actually fundamental to our very existence.  The question really is – what is the value of any individual’s activity?  If, ultimately, Gd alone is the Actor, and all action takes place within the ultimate reality that is Gd, what are we doing?  There is a famous Indian story – a huge rainstorm was threatening to destroy a village.  The hero Krishna lifts up a mountain and holds it like an umbrella over the village, saving it from being flooded away.  When the villagers see this, they all come running with sticks to “help” hold up the mountain.  What can we do with our sticks?

R. Riskin addresses this point by considering the crossing of the Sea (from Parashat Beshallach).  When the nation was on the shore of the Sea, with the Egyptians approaching from behind them and the water in front of them, they cried out to Gd in prayer, as did Moshe Rabbeinu.  Gd’s answer was quick in coming – “Why are you crying out to Me – tell the Israelites to get moving forward [into the Sea]!”  In other words, Gd is ready, willing and able to bring about our salvation, but it requires our action to get the ball rolling so to speak.  In other words, although ultimately Gd brings about redemption (and this is one explanation given for the fact that Moshe Rabbeinu’s contribution is ignored in the Haggadah), human beings also have a vital role to play.

What is this role and why is it so important to Gd?  After all, Gd is infinite and self-sufficient and doesn’t need our service or our prayers or our sacrifices.  He even supplies His own fire!  And yet our Sages tell us “Everything is in the hands of Heaven except [our] awe of Heaven.”  That is, human beings, seemingly uniquely in the Creation, have the ability to choose whether to do Gd’s Will or not.  Therefore when we give homage and obedience to Gd, we are giving Him the one thing that by definition it appears He can neither create nor compel – freely-offered subordination.

Neither the animals below us nor the angels above have free will.  Consequently they can only do what Gd has programmed/commanded them to do.  They are nothing more than instrumentalities for carrying out Gd’s Will.  This is why angels are described as “standing” while humans are described as “going.”  Humans can go forward, into the Sea for example, while the angels can only stand still, spiritually.

Therefore, as R. Riskin points out in the context of the redemption of Israel, and as R. A. J. Heschel points out in a broader context, Gd is in need of man so to speak, in order to complete creation.  The Kabbalists call this tikun olam, the rectification of the universe.  Just as the first human beings exercised their free will to mix up good and evil, so it is the job of all future generations to use our free will to separate them out again.  This huge responsibility carries with it commensurate rewards; it is only through carrying out our mission that we can truly be free.  It takes tremendous self-discipline to keep our priorities straight and to keep moving forward.  But as we read in Pirke Avot, the Master of the work is faithful to reward us.

Chag Kosher v’Sameach!