Wednesday, 20 Mar 2019

Written by Ann Gaelle Attias

It’s great to obey (sometimes…)

Welcome to this second foray into the austere world of Leviticus.  A dry land for the imagination but fertile for those who like to dig the furrows of the law, and our relationship to the law.  Tsav! “Order Aaron and his sons…” says the verse. The tone is set: an order is given to Moses to… give an order.

While reading Parashat Tsav, one memory never left me. I was in a small town in Kosavo, not far from the traumas of Mitrovica. I was a young journalist, allergic to authority but admiring the adventures of these French, English and Italian soldiers, who threw themselves deep into the Balkans to try to keep the peace in a war-torn territory. So I followed them. “Embedded,” as the Americans say. It was the end of the war. The daily shooting had succeeded the falsely calm atmosphere. At the time of the briefing, the commander gave me only one instruction: “never place yourself between my men and me when I give an order”.

These were not metaphorical words. Nothing could physically hide the commander’s look; each soldier had to be able to see the leader straight in the eyes. Very quickly, and to my great surprise, it appeared to me that giving an order was an art. The leader needed to seek consented obedience and not just govern from fear. Knowing how to obey is also an act of trust and courage.  Shabbethai ben Joseph Bass underlines this relationship between the one who commands and the one who obeys in his commentary[1] on our parashah.  He brought the first Tsav verses closer to another section in Deuteronomy. God says to Moses: “Give Joshua his instructions, and imbue him with strength and courage, for he shall go across at the head of this people, and he shall allot to them the land that you may only see.[2]

In our parashah, the ability to impose as well as the ability to accept the authority of another human being is therefore immediately asked of us. Here it is the Cohanim who are elevated to a high position because only they could sacrifice in the name of the community. But they did not choose this office of power. It came by an order from Moses and according the Divine will.  Rashi cites R. Simeon, saying: “Scripture must especially urge the fulfilment of the commands in a case where monetary loss is involved”[3].  The order is strict, because the one who receives risks losing more than himself: he drags the whole community down with him.

But, Tsav! Order! The imperative of the verb always grinds my ears. I’m a Jew who has chosen the progressive path in order to be able to say: no! No, to obsolete and unmoving halakhah. Who can still recognize himself in the descriptions of our parashah?  Sin expiated in the blood of sheep or birds, combustion of carcasses that would release a smell pleasant to God, as if God needed a barbecue- party to be fed… The Temple is destroyed, the status of the Cohens has been repealed in progressive Judaism. Why not read only the Haftarah instead this Shabbat? No doubt we will find there a higher quality of literature… But, none, in my opinion, could substitute the scope of a law, even if these laws have become totally inapplicable.

This sense of duty is timeless, but today, on the other hand, animal sacrifices and, even more so, the hereditary transmission of religious privileges shocks us.  Could an order of the Torah have become illegitimate? Progressive theology considers the Torah a continuous revelation and not a Divine work in each word, so in some cases, we can say: “not in my time.” However, there is another challenge facing progressive Jews.  Should I abandon these laws, but also, these rituals which feel me uncomfortable or just boring to me? Should I invent new ones without orders but with only proposals? Just as we can transpose an Aggadic narrative to our lives, we can also look into these sometimes obscure laws as fertile ground for contemporary jurisprudences.

In our parashah, we could observe that a king expiated his unintentional sin by giving a goat to sacrifice and the poor man could simply deliver a simple measure of flour. From a principle of social justice comes governance by consent. The same law for all but with a different method to perform it.  A very progressive idea for the time!

Another option is available to us. The possibility of amending a text. Without removing anything from the legal framework, the amendment intervenes to rectify; here it is more stringent; there it neutralizes a negative effect of the law. This is the work of the Halakhist. And the latter can also be progressive. So I wonder: would any religious injunction be a brake on a flourishing spirituality? And is there also merit in doing what we sometimes find frustrating? The proposal must always be substituted for the rule, leaving us with the possibility of overriding it or not.

Why did I end up following (most but not all) of the Captain’s orders in Kosovo? I wasn’t aware of it yet, but I suspect it. By abiding by the rules, I probably wanted to share more with these dozens of soldiers the experience that had given them their group identity: the shared experience of frustration.  Without doubt, even if I don’t fulfil the boring mitzvoth perfectly, like Pesach cleaning and fasting, it produces the same effect in me. Like the soldiers bonding over shared ennui, we gain the same feeling through struggling together. That of being Jewish.


Student rabbi Ann Gaelle Attias

[1] Iqar Sifthei Hakhamim on Tsav

[2] Deuteronomy 3.28

[3] (Sifra, Tzav, Chapter 1 1; Kiddushin 29a)

The views expressed in this D’var Torah do not necessarily reflect the position of Leo Baeck College.