“When Performing a Mitzvah Comes at a Significant Personal Cost”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This week’s parasha, parashat Tzav, for the most part, continues the Torah’s review of the rules and regulations governing the sacrifices and offerings. The conclusion of the parasha, however, describes the consecration of the priests into the priesthood.

In Leviticus 6:2, G-d speaks to Moses saying,צַו אֶת אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה, Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the law of the burnt-offering. The Torah continues to explain that the burnt-offering is to stay on the flame of the Altar all night, until the morning, and that the fire of the Altar should be kept lit at all times.

The Hebrew word, צַו, which means command, appears only in the verses describing the offerings that are brought by the community, but not in the verses regarding personal offerings. In fact, regarding personal offerings, the Torah, in Leviticus 1:2-3, says, אָדָם כִּי יַקְרִיב מִכֶּם קָרְבָּן לַהשׁם… לִרְצֹנוֹ, לִפְנֵי השׁם,” When a man among you brings an offering to G-d…he shall bring it of his own accord, underscoring that these offerings must be of one’s own free will. The Talmud in Menachot 110a states that the Al-mighty, in effect, declares: You are not bringing offerings for My satisfaction, but for your own satisfaction.

Rashi, citing Kedushin 29a, points out that the Torah’s use of the expression, צַו–command Aaron–implies an expressed urgency for both the immediate moment and for future generations. In fact, wherever the Torah uses the word,צַו, rather than, דַּבֵּר or אֱמֹר, speak or say, it indicates an urgency and that the command be fulfilled immediately, or that the command must continue to be performed by future generations.

To further explain the urgency implied by the word,צַו, “command,” Rashi cites the opinion of Rabbi Shimon, who maintains that scripture urges the priests to serve faithfully, especially in situations where there is a potential financial loss.

The Gur Aryeh explains that the ancient priests suffered financial losses when serving in the Temple because they were not paid for performing the sacrificial service. Also, additional financial loss occurred during the time that the priests served on the Temple rotation, because of their inability to work the fields or to take care of their flocks.  However, in almost all instances when sacrifices were brought, the priests received part of the meat of the sacrificed animals to take home and share with their families.

Although the priests were usually able to benefit from the meat of the sacrifices to compensate for their losses, in the instance of the עֹלָה, “Oh’lah,” the burnt-offering, the priests didn’t receive anything, since the “Oh’lah,” sacrifice was entirely burned on the Altar. The only compensation the priests received from the “Oh’lah” was the hide and the skin, which did not amount to much, especially given the significant loss of income from other work that they might have been able to do.

Rabbi Elimelech of Lida points out another intriguing anomaly. When the people of Israel sin and must bring sin offerings, the priests benefit greatly from these offerings. Ironically, the more the people sin, the greater the benefit to the priests. Consequently, it was particularly important that the Torah urge the priests to do their work faithfully not only when the תָּמִיד, Tamid, daily burnt offering, is sacrificed, but at all times.

That is why, says Rabbi Elimelech, the Torah uses the expression, זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה, that this is the Torah, the “teaching,” of the Oh’lah. When performing in the Temple, the priests must make a special effort to teach the people, and even reprove them if necessary, so that they not stray from the proper path and be certain to distance themselves from sin. Even though fewer sins will result in fewer sacrifices from which the priests benefit, and will mean a loss of income, the priests must be faithful in their service.

Unfortunately, we learn from Jewish history that eventually, by the later Second Temple period, the priesthood became terribly corrupt, and the High Priesthood was often sold to the highest bidder. In fact, some of the High Priests were far from faithful believers, subscribing to the beliefs of the Sadducees, who rejected the Oral Code, adhering only to the written words of the Torah. The Maccabees themselves, who were priests, usurped the kingship, which was intended exclusively for the tribe of Judah and not the priests. This ultimately led to the wholesale corruption of the priesthood and the Jewish monarchy, culminating in the destruction of the Second Temple.

Probity in financial matters is a high and exalted value in Jewish life that is emphasized again and again in the Torah. Moses declares (Numbers 16:15) that as a leader, לֹא חֲמוֹר אֶחָד מֵהֶם נָשָׂאתִי, I have not taken even a single donkey from the people as compensation for the service that I rendered to the Jewish people. In parashat Pekudei, Exodus 38:24-31, Moses and Aaron give a strict and exact accounting of all the valuables that were donated by the people for the building of the Tabernacle.

Although it is not widely known, there are three, not two, instances in the Torah, where the Torah promises “length of days” as a reward to those who perform particular mitzvot: 1. Exodus 20:11, honoring father and mother. 2. Deuteronomy 22:6-7, chasing away the mother bird when taking the chicks. 3. Deuteronomy 25:13-15, honesty in business–-having honest weights and measures.

Because the powerful lure of ill-gotten gains, the Code of Jewish Law demands that there must be several officials who together oversee communal charity funds. In fact, the Talmud, in Yoma 38a, cites several impressive examples of public servants who would deprive themselves of certain luxuries and conveniences so that they would be above any suspicion of wrongdoing: The House of Garmu never allowed their children to eat bread of fine flour, lest the people say that it was taken from the Showbread that their priestly family produced for the Tabernacle. The House of Avtimas never allowed the brides of their family to wear perfume, lest the people accuse them of using the perfumes of the incense that their priestly family was charged with producing. Similarly, any person who entered the “Shekel Chamber” in the Temple was not permitted to wear a sleeved cloak, shoes or sandals, lest they be accused of pilfering shekels from the Temple charity funds.

It was especially challenging for the ancient priests, who depended greatly upon the flesh gifts of the sacrifices for their livelihoods, to be scrupulously honest when they served their rotations in the Temple, particularly if their families may not have enough to eat.

The reward for honesty, however, is extremely great. In fact, the greater the challenge, the greater the temptation and the greater the reward. Since G-d sets and decrees a person’s level of income, ill-gotten gains will never bring benefit. Therefore, it is incumbent upon all Jews to aspire to be beyond reproach, by maintaining their absolute honesty, even under the most challenging circumstances.

Like the priests of old, we must maintain our moral standards, even when facing significant personal financial challenges.

May you be blessed.

Please note: This Shabbat, the Shabbat that immediately precedes Passover, is known as Shabbat Hagadol, the Great Shabbat. On this Shabbat, we read a special Haftarah from the prophet Malachi 3:4-24, in which we find the verse: “Behold I send to you Elijah the Prophet, before the great and awesome day of G-d.” For more information on Shabbat Hagadol, see parashat Tzav 5762-2002.

The first two days of the joyous festival of Passover will be observed this year on Friday night, April 3rd and all day Saturday and Sunday, April 4th and 5th.