Drash on Parashat Tzav (Shabbat Hagadol) 2023

Drash on Parashat Tzav (Shabbat Hagadol)          
Rabbi Jeffrey B Kamins OAM
Emanuel Synagogue, Woollahra, NSW

To be commanded in these times

Shabbat Hagadol, “the great Shabbat”, is the name given to the Shabbat before Pesach.  There are many reasons given for this Shabbat being known as great, among them that it announces the coming of the great festival of Pesach, which celebrates our redemption from Egypt and the beginning of our national consciousness.  Pesach is our seminal event – reminding us always of our shared experience of slavery and our cherished freedom to be of service to God.  The experience of oppression in Egypt provides the rationale for many of our mitzvot, especially those concerned with doing right by others.  This is the Shabbat in which we consider what it means to be part of this holy nation.  Hopefully, the following teaching will be food for thought as we celebrate our foremost festival at our Pesach Seders next week.

The major element of Shabbat Hagadol is the special haftarah reading from the prophet Malachi, in which he refers to Elijah the prophet who will herald the coming of the messiah.  Malachi speaks of the future day in which the hearts of children will be turned toward their parents and parents to their children.  Overall, this reading suggests that the messianic era requires healing within families, within communities and within our world.  Thus, Shabbat Hagadol can focus us on how to approach our life of service to God through the performance of mitzvot that bring well-being to others.

Serendipitously, this year Shabbat Hagadol coincides with Parasha Tzav, “command”, bringing to our attention of what it means to be commanded.  Throughout the Torah we are commanded to do all kinds of things, and commanded as well to avoid all kinds of things.  While the Torah does not present a legal system, but rather laws interspersed through narrative, over time, a system of legal commands has been distilled from it.  The first legal compendium is the Mishna, finalised around 200 CE; in the Talmud around 500 CE came the notion of “613 mitzvot” and in the Middle Ages legal codes around these mitzvot developed.  The assumption underlying this legal, or halakhic, system is that God created the world and then singled out the Jews through the gift of the literal Torah to be the ones to perform this extensive system of mitzvot. 

Today we see a major rift in this system being exposed in Israel, with ripples being felt around the Jewish world.  The legal system has been built on the assumption that the Torah is the literal word of God and that are there is an exclusive group of rabbis who has the absolute right to determine how God’s word should be applied in these times.  In contrast to that position there is a “positive historical approach”, presented primarily in the Masorti or conservative movement that understands Torah as an ancestral communication with God (however God may be understood).  Further, there are progressive and liberal Jews who champion personal autonomy and secular Jews who have a tangential connection to Torah.  All these Jews exist in the land of Israel and outside it – and now in the land of Israel there is an attempt to make Torah law as understood by exclusive rabbis the law of the land.  This move, while incipient, requires each and every Jew wherever we live to consider what it means to us to be “commanded”.  We see the potential unfolding in Israeli politics at this time of how exclusive authority can lead to a world of misogyny and discrimination.  Our countervailing voice must be heard.

The prophecy of Malachi we read at this time can inspire our voice.  The hearts of children are turned to parents, and parents to children. We think of what our ancestors wanted of us and we imagine how best to transmit this to our children. Understanding from a positive-historical perspective that the notion of the “613 mitzvot” is a rubric as to how we should act each day of our life, and from a liberal perspective that supports rabbinic guidance but not rabbinic authority, we can freely associate to create communities of purpose and meaning.  We have the ability to reach back to our ancestors and understand what they were attempting to do in their way and their time, and transmit that to the generations to come to the best of our ability. 

Our ancestors used an amorphous form of the word “to be” for God, teaching us that God is the word that we use for the ultimate and singular mystery of life, which binds us together and continues to unfold with us.  Our words of Torah are an approach toward that oneness, an attempt to develop a relationship with it.  For the most part they are beautiful and inspiring, but sometimes cruel and demeaning. Our ancestors established the parameters of interpretation as it says of Torah in Proverbs 3:19: “Its ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace.” We study to the best of our ability Torah’s teachings for inspiration to live a life that is good, true and holy, and transmit that vision to our children and children’s children.  It is with those thoughts that we can bring healing to our families, our communities and our world.

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