Drash on Parashat Tzav (Shabbat Hagadol)
Rabbi Beni YedidYah Wajnberg
United Hebrew Congregation, Singapore
God in the Great, God in the minutiae
Shabbat HaGadol, the Great Shabbat, is the name of the Shabbat just before Passover. How could there be a more fitting name for the eve of such remarkable time of our Jewish year? There is so much greatness that is conveyed by the Passover season. Great miracles - a bush that burns yet it’s not consumed, a sea that parts. Great aspirations - a vision of freedom, a sense of collective responsibility. Great anticipation - for the holiday celebration (even in our pandemic times), and for a new beginning, as seasons change.
Torah portion Tzav, read this Shabbat, seems initially dissonant with the greatness of the season, as the holy Torah continues to portray the minutiae of Temple worship, with detailed explanations of the different kinds of sacrifices. It describes what everyday life looked like for our ancestors - their routine. But perhaps there is a deeper message to us, modern Jews, in this apparent dissonance.
We are commanded, on Passover, to feel as if we had been personally in Egypt as slaves, and present before the parting sea. We can easily imagine standing before the Sublime, as described by the great thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “That which we see and are unable to convey. It is the silent allusion of things to a meaning greater than themselves.”“Wow!,” I imagine each of us exclaiming in such marvelous site. Perhaps the site of the burning bush might have been slightly less impressive, although still rather curious and puzzling. But there is a detail not to be overlooked in that story.
Moses saw the burning bush, and said: “Asurah nah v’ereh- I will turn to see [this burning bush].” (Exodus 3:3). A verse later, the holy Torah makes a point to say that only when God saw Moses turning around to see did God speak to him. What if Moses had been on his phone, on social media, and had passed through such marvelous site unaware and distracted of its beauty? Aren’t we missing out on burning bushes in our own whereabouts and meanderings?
The whole point of the story is to teach the power of turning around to reallysee what is around us. The Sublime, that which we are unable to convey, surrounds us. The experience of the Homo Religiosusbegins with experiencing the Sublime, and in Rabbi Heschel’s thought, in our response to it through Wonder and consequently Awe. Not only in great self-evident miraculous moments, but in everyday life.
Tzav portrays how our ancestors searched for transcendence through their daily rituals. I wonder - pun intended - how great it would be for us to find within us the courage to open our hearts and experience all that the sacred can mean in our lives. Perhaps the commandment of seeing ourselves as if we had been slaves is less of a glorification of the past narrative, and more of a calling into spiritual action. Starting with self-love, then with our love towards others, towards all sentient beings, and finally towards all of creation. This Passover, let our hearts open wide, let wonder and awe be abundant, and let this Great Shabbat be revelatory of the small burning bushes around us.
Abraham Joshua Heschel, “God in Search of Man,” pp. 39