“Vayikra,” the book of the Torah we read during the spring, literally means “called” as in its opening verse, “The Lord called to Moses and spoke to him…” (Lev. 1:1). God’s spoken message throughout the Torah is often framed as a mitzvah, a commandment.
This week’s Torah portion, Tzav, means “command.” Our parasha begins, “The Lord spoke to Moses saying: Command Aaron and his sons, saying...” (Lev. 6:1). It concludes, “And Aaron and his sons did all the things that the Lord had commanded through Moses” (Lev. 8:36).
When most people are commanded, they follow orders. For example, in the army, a commander gives an order to his or her troops; or in baseball, the manager sends a signal to the batter, telling her or him whether to bunt or to hit away. In both cases, individuals usually do what they are told to do. Soldiers and ballplayers know and see who commanded them. They also understand that these authority figures can enforce their orders; if they are not followed, soldiers can be sent to military prison, and ballplayers can be benched, fined or thrown off the team.
But when it comes to the Torah, we do not see the commander, and many do not connect the consequences of inactions when it comes to not doing mitzvot. This is a great challenge in particular for many non-Orthodox Jews. Is there a different framework for engaging with mitzvot?
A Talmudic discussion provides an interesting angle to that question. In the Midrash, God held Mount Sinai over our ancestors’ heads and said, “If you accept the Torah, all is well; if not, this mountain will be your burial site” (Shabbat 88a). The Talmud does not lose sight of the coercive element:
“Rabbi Aha ben Jacob observed: ‘This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah.’ Said Raba, ‘Yet even so, they reaccepted it in the days of Ahasuerus (the king from the Purim story in the Book of Esther), for it is written, ‘[the Jews] confirmed, and took upon themselves…’ (Esther 9:27), confirming what they had accepted long before” (Shabbat 88a).
This is a model we should not lose sight of today.
A core value of Judaism is the generational obligations of the generations. Moses said, as the people prepared to cross the Jordan River into the Promised Land: “I am making this covenant, with its oath, not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God but also with those who are not here today” (Deut. 29:14-15).
Beginning with Joshua and his generation, who entered the Promised Land, the Jewish people felt the need to take on that obligation on their own:
“The people replied to Joshua, ‘No we will serve the Lord!’ And Joshua said to the people, ‘You are witnesses against yourselves that you have by your own act chosen to serve the Lord.’ ‘Yes, we are witnesses,’ they responded” (Josh. 24:21-22).
However, for many Jews today that process is not so simple. The reconciling of liberty with service, as Abraham Joshua Heschel pointed out, is the great question and challenge for a meaningful life. We who cherish freedom sometimes forget that one of the major lessons of the Exodus story is that freedom without responsibilities can lead to a shallower life and can often develop into new forms of slavery and idolatry.
SO HOW do we, like our ancestors in the Book of Joshua, take on the Torah’s responsibilities?
At the core of being commanded is obligation – in this case, holy obligation. Obligation is the act of binding oneself through social, legal and moral ties. Until the Jewish encounter with modernity within the last two centuries, that sense of duty came from a belief that the Torah was the transmitted word of God. In our day, when many Jews do not share that traditional view of Torah, it becomes imperative to claim a renewed sense of duty and responsibility. In the mitzvah system, while being commanded lies at its heart, at its essence it is about the binding of oneself to that call as recorded in the Torah and discussed in the Talmud and other Jewish halachic (legal) and philosophical conversations throughout the ages.
We have a vast sea of possibilities that our tradition lays before us. Sincerely examining and deciding, not a simplistic picking and choosing, what our tradition has to offer can be one approach to seriously engaging with the mitzvot – not from the sense of being commanded from above but from a sense of filling and enhancing our lives through holy obligation.
Relatedly, it should not be lost that the halachic process has never remained static. Some mitzvot have fallen out of favor or have been circumvented through the centuries. For example, the death penalty and the sotah [woman suspected of adultery] ordeal. Other actions, while not commanded in the Torah, have been raised to the level of commandment, such as the lighting of candles for Shabbat and Hanukkah, when we say, “who has commanded us.”
When an action is claimed as a mitzvah, the question is no longer “Should I do this?” but rather “Now that I am bound, if you will, commanded to do it, how shall I do it?” In addition, with many mitzvot, the question, based on the concept of hidur, or adornment of the mitzvah, will also be “How can I make this action – and, in turn, my life and the world we live in – more beautiful?”
Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, in his hassidic Torah commentary Sfat Emet, teaches that when we take upon ourselves a mitzvah, it can be an innovative process, including one of self-transformation:
“Now you shall command” (Ex. 27:20). Bring the mitzvah into the souls of Israel so that they themselves become mitzvot!... it is the remaking (tikkun) of the person that takes place through mitzvot, forming a person into one dedicated to God.... That person... has become a mitzvah. This is the meaning of ‘asher kidshanu bemitzvotav (who has made us holy through God’s commandments) vetzivanu’ – and made us into mitzvot!” (Sfat Emet, Tetzave; The Language of Truth, translated by Arthur Green, p. 124).
Living a Jewish life is about living a life of commitment and service. It is about binding ourselves to certain ideals and actions. It is about leading a commanded life through our response to that call as expressed in the words “asher kidshanu bemitzvotav vetzivanu.” The Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. talked about living “a committed life.”
For many non-Orthodox Jews, seeing the mitzvot not as literal commandments but as opportunities to take on personal holy obligation can be a way to reframe a deliberate commitment to Judaism, as well as build a deeper sense of purpose within a Jewish context.
The Sfat Emet reminds us that that process can be transformational. By doing so, we remodel not only our actions but also our lives and the people we come into contact with – our families, our communities, the Jewish people and our world.
Holy obligation can reorient the performance of mitzvot as a way to reclaim that profound responsibility that comes with the mitzvot – as well as convey a heightened awareness that we are all connected to and mirrored in the universe and in the infinite. ■
The writer, a Reconstructionist rabbi, is rabbi emeritus of the Israel Congregation in Manchester Center, Vermont. He teaches at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies on Kibbutz Ketura and at Bennington College.