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The Torah Learning Library of Yeshivat Chovevei Torah

Mitzvot, Monotony, and Meaning

by Rabbi Dov Linzer (Posted on March 21, 1998)
Topics: God, Faith, Religiosity & Prayer, Machshava/Jewish Thought, Middot, Mikdash, Korbanot and Kohanim, Mitzvot, Sefer Vayikra, Torah, Tzav

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Parshat Tzav continues with a discussion of the sacrifices to be brought in the Sanctuary, this time from the perspective of the priests that do the service. It concludes with a seven-day induction of Aaron and his sons into the priestly order.

The parsha opens with the following verses: “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Command Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the burnt offering…. The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out; every morning the priest shall feed wood to it… A perpetual fire shall be kept burning on the altar, not to go out,” (Vayikra, 6:1-6). Rather than common phrase “speak to Aaron,” the Torah here opens with “command Aaron.” Rashi comments that the word ‘command’ implies urging. Why was special urging needed for this mitzvah? Rashi explains that Aaron might have hesitated to do a mitzvah that incurs regular expense, so he needed a special urging in its performance.

The problem with Rashi’s explanation is that most mitzvot involve some expense, and yet no such urging is given by other mitzvot. What is unique to this mitzvah is not the expense involved, but the fact that it is a constant mitzvah – the fire must be burning constantly and that wood must be put on the altar every morning. A constant mitzvah shows our constant devotion to God, shows that we recognize that the fire in us must be burning constantly, not only once or twice a week, or once or twice a day, but every moment. The pitfall, however, is that when we do something constantly it becomes rote. We no longer give any significance to what we are doing; it’s just something we do. Because of this, these mitzvot require special urging: “command Aaron.” We must feel that we are commanded, that we are doing God’s will, and not just doing what we’ve always done. It is not enough that the fire is burning constantly, we must “feed wood to it” every morning. We must stoke the flames. We must keep those daily practices new and fresh and find ways to imbue them with renewed meaning every day.

Although the daily mitzvot are the ones most likely to become rote, to turn into empty rituals, this could happen to any mitzvah. It is easy to focus on a mitzvah just in terms of its performance, its dos and don’ts, and forget about its essence. This is exactly what happened to the sacrifices: “‘What need have I of all your sacrifices?’ says the Lord… I have no delight in the lambs and he-goats… Who asked this of you, to trample My courts?” (Yeshaya: 11-12). The people had focused only on the ritual, and had forgotten that sacrifices were to bring them closer to God. When they kept their evil ways, sacrifices became empty rituals, and, far from being desired by God, were an affront to Him. God tells them,”They are become a burden to Me, I cannot endure them… Wash yourselves clean, put your evil doings away from My sight. Cease to do evil, learn to do good.” (ibid, 14-17).

These problems have not left us today. We allow the daily mitzvot to become rote: we say our prayers without letting the words that exit from our mouths enter into our ears, mind, and souls. We fail to “place wood on the fire every day,” to fan those flames smoldering within us. Even when we are attentive to a particular mitzvah, we tend to focus on the ritual itself and lose sight of its deeper meaning. How often do we ask ourselves not only “how do I do this mitzvah?” but “what is this mitzvah about? What does this mitzvah say about what God wants from me, and how I should be acting?”? This is our obligation. We must strive to invest every mitzvah we do with freshness and meaning, to make every mitzvah not a burden on God, but beloved and dear to Him. We must let the mitzvot change not only what we do, but also who we are.