Parshat Tzav: The importance of freedom of choice

At the beginning of the parsha, we find a unique directive regarding the order of work in the Mishkan – and later in the Temple.

Sea of Haredim 370 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Sea of Haredim 370
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tzav, addresses the laws of sacrifices dealt with in the previous parsha – Vayikra. It describes the preparations made by Moshe Rabbeinu, Aharon the Priest and the latter’s four sons, before the dedication of the Mishkan (Tabernacle) that we will read about in detail in next week’s parsha.
At the beginning of the parsha, we find a unique directive regarding the order of work in the Mishkan – and later in the Temple in its permanent place in Jerusalem. An explanation is needed, especially in light of the fact that the Torah states this directive twice and emphasizes it.
This is what G-d says to Moshe: “And the fire on the altar shall burn on it; it shall not go out… A continuous fire shall burn upon the altar; it shall not go out.” (Leviticus 6, 5-6) The content of this directive, which as mentioned is unusually emphasized, is that after the Mishkan and the altar inside it are established, a fire must always be burning on the altar.
This halacha (Jewish law) demands explanation. But it is even more puzzling since the description in the next parsha describes a heavenly fire that appears on the altar without human intervention. This is what our sages said in the Talmud, “Even though fire came down from heaven, the commandment is to bring it from a common person.” (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Yoma, page 21) Meaning, there is no contradiction between fire coming down from heaven and the commandment to bring fire created by man.
Both are necessary.
Indeed, even if there is no contradiction between the two descriptions, a clarification is still necessary: What need is there for human-made fire when heavenly fire appears on the altar? What value is there to the fire of a common person when there is fire from heaven? A unique answer to this question appears in “Sefer Hachinuch” (a book that summarizes the commandments of the Torah and their reasons, composed in Spain in the 13th century and printed anonymously. It is attributed to Rabbi Aharon Halevi of Barcelona).
This is how the author of Sefer Hachinuch explains the rationale of this commandment: “It is a known thing among us and every wise person that big miracles which the Lord does for humans in His great kindness will forever be done in a hidden manner, and these things seem to be done a little as though they were actually natural or close to natural… And this is the reason that we were commanded to light a fire on the altar, even though fire comes down from heaven there, in order to hide the miracle!” (Sefer Hachinuch, Commandment 132) This idea is supported in several other places in the Bible in which miracles are described which deviate from the laws of nature but which were hidden by natural phenomena. One example of this is the Parting of the Red Sea, known as the greatest and most public of the Bible’s miracles, but done with a strong wind that blew and dried the area where Am Yisrael was crossing the sea.
This explanation is not only relevant to this commandment or another, for it contains a decisive tenet in understanding the relationships among man, the world, and G-d. At first glance, when G-d makes a miracle, He is interested in mankind recognizing the miracle. This is how it is in the stories of all the nations and religions. When miracles are described, they come to influence the person experiencing the miracle to change his behavior.
But in Judaism, there is a basic, significant concept that could be harmed by the experience of a miracle: Freedom of choice. Imagine a person who experienced a miracle completely deviating from the laws of nature, which points clearly to a guiding hand acting out of wisdom and infinite ability, and for a clear goal. Could this man later act against He who controls all of nature completely? Would that man be capable of considering a transgression? Of course not. Whoever experiences a manifest miracle can be said to have freedom of choice taken away from him, as he will feel he must obey the commandments of the miracle creator, meaning G-d.
One might ask – How is this bad? Is G-d not interested in man fulfilling His commandments? The answer is unequivocal: No! G-d is interested in man choosing to fulfill the commandments, and not obeying them out of lack of choice. Man as an entity who makes choices is the one who stands before G-d, not man who must obey directives and does not recognize any other option.
Therefore, the commandment was given to light a fire on the altar, despite the fact that alongside the human fire, a heavenly fire burned.
This is so there would not be a situation whereby man sees the fire that appears on its own in an unnatural manner and, due to this, his freedom of choice is harmed.
We must internalize the full significance of being creations who can make choices, who are capable of choosing good, or, G-d forbid, bad.
We are obligated to take full responsibility for our deeds – and to choose the good.
Parshat Zachor In addition to Parshat Tzav, this week in the synagogue, we will also hear Parshat Zachor that deals with the war between Amalek and the Jewish nation after its liberation from Egypt.
What do we have to do with Amalek? Why do we have to read every year about a war that took place thousands of years ago and remember the animosity between Amalek and the Jewish nation? Our sages described Amalek figuratively and explained the significance of remembering the Amalek war, “At a time that all the nations were afraid to fight Yisrael, this one came and started… Compare to a boiling hot bath with no choice but to go into it. Along comes one wicked person, jumps and goes into it, even though he got scalded, he cooled it off for others.”
Am Yisrael did not leave Egypt quietly.
The liberation of a nation of slaves from a land of slaves in a wondrous manner created a huge resonance in the entire ancient world. All nations were shocked to hear of the miracles and wonders that accompanied the liberation of the Jewish nation from Egypt. But Amalek decided to “break the ice” and ignore the dangers inherent in a war with the Jewish people.
He jumped into the boiling hot bath, got scalded, but cooled it off – psychologically – in everyone else’s eyes.
The eternal memory, and the eternal animosity of the Jewish nation for Amalek, is rooted in Amalek’s irrational behavior. Even today, in times of distress, there are various “bath coolers” who appear, weakening the spirit of the nation and loosening its grip, even as they themselves are scalded in that same bath… The Torah teaches us that this phenomenon is completely invalid.
It must be opposed and destroyed.
Therefore, we remind ourselves yearly about the destruction of Amalek in order to announce that this behavior has no place in the Jewish nation.
Indeed, during sensitive times, one must empower the nation and not weaken it, not cool it or cause it to despair. If we all plant hope in one another, we will surely overcome our greatest challenges.
The writer is rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites.