Tzav: On remembering that God is in the details

Shabbat HaGadol


Leviticus 6:1-8:36

Malachi 3:4-24

A man ordered a bowl of soup and then called the waiter back. "Taste this," the man demanded.

The waiter replied, "What's the matter? It is too hot?"

"Just taste this," he insisted.

"Is it too cold?"

Again, "Just taste this."

"Is it too salty?"

"Just taste this."

Finally the waiter said, "OK, I'll taste it. Where's the spoon?"

The patron replied, "Aha!"

Tzav, the Torah portion for this Sabbath, Shabbat HaGadol — the Sabbath preceding Passover — focuses on minutiae, just as this anecdote speaks of the importance of one detail, a soup spoon that makes it possible to enjoy a bowl of soup.

A reader of Tzav quickly discovers that this Torah portion does not speak about lofty ideals and exalted principles. Rather, it opens: "zot torat haolah," or "This is the law of the burnt offering."

Exacting ritual observance and ceremony often provides people with a sense of security and stability. Carefully prescribed details for offerings of meal, sin and guilt, and sacrifices of well-being, noted in the text, must have been a source of comfort for worshippers in the biblical period.

In spite of ritual's solace, however, many take shortcuts, even in the most widely observed holiday, Passover. At the seder, the delicious odors wafting from the kitchen do not go unnoticed by hungry celebrants. As the seder drones on, pages are often skipped, the required cups of wine are hurriedly drunk, haggadot are put away and the meal is hastily served. Many rationalize, "What difference will dispensing with most of the service make?"

However, a favorite seder song, "Dayenu," makes it clear that each occurrence in the life of our people, no matter how big or small, has value. If God had only given us the Torah, only brought us to Israel, only saved us from the Egyptians, only fed us with manna or only led us in the wilderness, each would have been sufficient for us, dayenu, because each of these things changed Jewish history.

Being fastidious in ritual observances teaches that often a word, glance, smile or simple act of kindness can have more impact than imagined. S. Y. Agnon's tale "The Celebrants" is a sweet, gentle story that demonstrates the power of what might be considered an insignificant word or action.

Mechel, a widower who was the synagogue custodian, left worship on the first night of Passover and proceeded home to an empty table in an empty house. Even though he was quite lonely, he had refused many invitations to celebrate Passover because he did not want to intrude on the festivities of his friends.

On the way home, he noticed Sarah Leah, a widow, looking out of a window. They exchanged greetings and began to converse in earnest when Sarah Leah also complained about celebrating Passover alone.

Mechel began to cough and mutter that in addition to all of his other misfortunes, he also had a cold. Hearing Mechel cough, she said to him, "Reb Mechel, don't stand out there in the cold. Better come in where we can continue our conversation."

He entered to find a table set with silverware, a bottle of red wine, candles burning in silver candlesticks, matzot, bitter herbs, charoset, roasted eggs, a shankbone, savory fish and meat, puddings and deep purple borscht. The sight of the holiday table and the smell of the pleasing odors of Passover foods warmed him, but again he began to cough furiously.

Sarah Leah offered a glass of hot tea and then invited Mechel to celebrate Passover with her at her home. He gladly accepted. She filled a kiddush cup with wine and he chanted the holy blessing.

Sarah Leah thought how fortunate she was to once again celebrate Passover at home, listening to the chanting voice of a man and watching his strong hands break the white matzot. And Mechel thought how wonderful it was for a Passover seder to have the imprint of a woman. His aches and pains disappeared as he sat and listened to the words of the departure from Egypt.

Tzav, a Torah portion that seems filled with outmoded sacrifices, teaches an important lesson: that small things — a brief evening of holiday celebration, a soup spoon, a law of sacrifice — dayenu, each alone is sufficient to make a difference.