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Parashat Tzav 5783

March 27, 2023

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Constancy and Careful Guarding: How to Link the Jewish Past with the Future
A D’var Torah for Parashat Tzav
By Rabbi Mitchell Blank (’21)

This coming Shabbat is the last one before Passover begins (Shabbat HaGadol) and the Torah reading this year falls on Parashat Tzav. Both Tzav and Exodus 12, the chapter that details Passover observance, emphasize the biblical world view that constancy of action (temidut) and careful guarding of ritual (shemira) are the glue linking past and future generations. The Rabbis endorse these paths to Jewish survival yet also understand that the ultimate guarantor of continuity in an ever-changing world is intergenerational peace. Passover, the time of our freedom and redemption, is davka the holiday our sages choose to accentuate that the most important mitzvah is to maintain Jewish continuity by children and parents being in dialogue.

Parashat Tzav begins with particulars of Olat HaTamid, the daily burnt offering. Intertwined in these details is a related command, an Esh Tamid, a perpetual fire to be maintained on the altar. For emphasis, The Torah twice adds the admonition lo tikhbeh!, it shall never go out.

Both the sacrifice and the fire are described as tamid. Yet the fire is perpetually aflame while the sacrifice is offered twice daily. In another aspect of Temple worship, the loaves of bread are also called tamid; they are regularly replaced once a week. So what exactly is temidut?

In biblical Hebrew, the range of meaning for tamid includes “always,” “at all times,” “continually” or “regularly. “ The various definitions share as their common denominator a definite sense of constancy based upon set intervals of time. It is the regular investment of time in sacred acts which creates the sense of constancy, the temidut.

We desperately need an element of constancy in our lives as an antidote to an inescapable paradox of the human condition. On the one hand, change is the only real constant in our lives and we must continually adapt to thrive, or at a minimum, to survive. At the same time, we all understand that change can be very dysregulating such as moving, changing careers or becoming parents. Even in the happiest circumstances, change can be very stressful.

We need a tamid aspect of our lives to ground us, to provide a stable framework within which to navigate our constantly changing circumstances. Yet in today’s world, the pace of change happens so quickly and is ever accelerating. Cultivating a sense of constancy seems antithetical to the rhythms of modern life, yet we need it more than ever before.

The Tamid offering is mentioned four times in the Pentateuch within comprehensive lists of all the sacrifices in descending order of holiness. The Tamid always tops the list, even ahead of the offering for Shabbat! Shabbat is God’s gift to us, a sacred zone carved outside of normal time. Temidut is a gift to ourselves, a regular investment of time in sacred acts to counterbalance the relentless onslaught of change in our lives.

After the destruction of the 2nd Temple in 70 C.E., it was apparent that sacrificial worship would no longer be available. The Jewish people were exiled, displaced, defeated and certainly dysregulated. Their entire original system of worship was inexorably broken. How would they regain a sense of God’s presence in their lives, let alone that much needed element of constancy?

Our sages understood that a thorough paradigm shift was imperative. Yet, it would not be a complete revolution. A great degree of constancy was maintained. Commenting on Mishneh Avot, a collection of aphorisms or life maxims of our sages, Rabbi Gordon Tucker notes: “The word av can also refer to a father in a metaphoric sense – that is, a paradigmatic idea or value… The vision of Avot is actively involved in developing and refining the essence of our faith, while not ignoring the past.”1 The Rabbis teach us that carefully guarding the past (shemira), especially in times of rapidly changing circumstances, is crucial in distilling the essence of our religion as well as in carrying the enterprise forward.

Exodus 12:6 refers to the first Passover observance as a mishmeret. The root shin mem resh has a valence of meaning including to “conserve,” “preserve,” “observe” or “guard.” This root appears seven times in Chapter 12 and informs our understanding of Passover observance to include careful guarding (think in terms of shemura matzah) “You shall observe the Unleavened Bread” (Ex. 12:17). We don’t just “observe” this mitzvah, the bread is carefully guarded to make sure it doesn’t leaven. Indeed, the whole observance is called a night of watching (leil shimurim) for God and for the Israelites, forever. “It was a night of watching unto the Lord for bringing them out of the land of Egypt, this same night is a watching unto the Lord for all the children of Israel throughout the generations.” (Ex. 12:42)

Synthesizing the biblical concepts of temidut and shemira, our sages well understood that the content of what is considered to be “constant” in worship is actually ever changing. To continually ground the changes within a traditional Jewish framework, they constructed a system that “conserves” the precepts of original worship while still allowing for organic change and evolution.

“Rabban Gamliel would say: Anyone who did not say these three matters on Passover has not fulfilled his obligation: The Paschal lamb, matzah and bitter herbs.” (Mishnah Pesahim 10:5). These rituals are the very same found in Exodus 12 that are to be conserved, preserved and carefully guarded. Indeed, these elements have always been part of our Passover observance and are so until this very day. Yet Rabban Gamliel’s instructions do not end there. “In each and every generation a person must view himself as though he left Egypt, as it is stated “And you shall tell your son on that day saying: It is because of this which the Lord did for me when I came forth out of Egypt.” (Ibid., quoting Ex. 13:8).

In other words, the framework of the rituals guides us but, in each and every generation, they must be updated to resonate on an experiential basis. By necessity this means as times change, we are, as Rabbi Tucker noted, constantly developing and refining the way we relate to our tradition. There is a set order, literally a seder, yet each year the questions and the ensuing discussions are forever changing.

The Rabbis note that the Torah commands that we “remember” that God took us out Egypt; we fulfill that command daily by reciting the third paragraph of the shema. (Num. 15:37-41) How then do we fulfill the other command to “tell” the story to our children? Unlike remembrance, which we can do by ourselves, telling by definition includes intergenerational dialogue. Pesah is the only holiday we are commanded to overcome the generation gap. It’s a mitzvah for children and parents to be in dialogue.

Our sages were also responsible for matching a specifically chosen haftarah to match the main theme of the holiday. For Shabbat HaGadol they chose Malakhi 3:4-24, the final word of prophecy by the final prophet. “Lo, I will sent the prophet Elijah to you…He shall reconcile parents with children and children with parents.” (Mal. 3:23-24) The era of prophecy ends with the ultimate guarantor of Jewish continuity, bridging the generation gap.

It’s not so easy. That’s why mah nishtanah includes four types of children asking questions. For successful intergenerational dialogue, each child must be addressed differently, in their own way. During Passover, the time of our liberation (zeman heruteinu), the redemption of Elijah, is a seder-like lifestyle with parents and children in dialogue. Acts of constancy and conservation provide the essential framework of Jewish continuity, yet the rabbis understood that only intergenerational dialogue will always guarantee that each generation can see themselves as leaving Egypt.

Shabbat Shalom and Hag Kasher VeSameah!

1 Pirkei Avot Lev Shalem. Translated and Edited by Martin S. Cohen with commentaries by Tamar Elad- Applebaum and Gordon Tucker. The Rabbinical Assembly New York 2018.
Rabbi Mitchell Blank was ordained by AJR in April 2021 and most recently served as the spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El of Manhattan Beach, Brooklyn