Of Matzot and Mitzvot
The Parsha begins with a turn of phrase that is unusual in the Torah: "Tzav," command:
And the Eternal God spoke to Moshe, saying, 2. Command Aharon and his sons, saying, 'This is the Torah of the burnt offering...' (Vayikra 6:1-2)
The word tzav is related to the word mitzva; it denotes the imperative, and Rashi understands that in this form, tzav connotes quickness or immediacy.
Command Aharon - The word tzav is in all cases a word denoting an exhortation to quickness...
The source for this teaching is a passage in the Talmud:
The School of R. Yishmael taught: whenever 'command' is stated, its only purpose is to denote an exhortation to quickness... (Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 29a) 1
There is another instance in which Rashi speaks of speed which may be instructive: An earlier instance is to be found in his comments on the Torah's discussion of the Redemption in general, and matza in particular: The Torah commands us to "guard the matzot":
And you shall guard the matzot; for on this same day I brought your armies out of the land of Egypt; and you shall observe this day throughout your generations as a law forever. (Shmot 12:17)
The word 'ushmartem,' to observe or guard, is understood by Rashi as a commandment of activity:
Guard the matzot, that they do not become chametz... Rebbi Yoshia said, 'Don't read "matzot" rather "mitzvot"; just as you shouldn't let the matza become chametz (leavened bread), you shouldn't let a mitzva become spoiled; rather, when an opportunity arises, perform the mitzva immediately. (Rashi on Sh'mot 12:17)
Rashi cites a teaching from the Mechilta,2 which draws our attention to the concept of quickness involved in the production of matzot. The idea is taken one step further, as the commandment regarding the specific mitzva of matzot is established as an archetype for all the commandments: Just as one should guard the dough from becoming chametz, (leavened bread) one should guard all the mitzvot; if an opportunity to perform a mitzva presents itself, this opportunity should not be missed. One must act immediately, rapidly, seizing the opportunity to perform all mitzvot.
Aside from the linguistic similarity, the comparison between matzot and mitzvot is not immediately clear. Matza is made by mixing water and flour; if more than 18 minutes elapse, rather than matza, you have chametz - instead of unleavened bread, you have leavened bread. Rather than matzot mitzva, matzot made for the sole purpose of performing a singular mitzva which we may fulfill only one night each year for a limited number of hours - we have chametz. On Pesach this is a critical difference. The commandment to "guard the matzot" requires speed; if one tarries, the unleavened dough will rise, and become forbidden chametz.3
However, not all mitzvot are as time-sensitive. Many mitzvot are not at all affected by time; there is no clock, certainly not 18 minutes, and if the mitzva is performed tomorrow rather than today, ostensibly nothing is lost. Why would Rashi draw this parallel between matzot, which must be made with careful attention to time, and all other mitzvot, regardless of the urgency of the time constraints involved in their performance? Why require us to perform all mitzvot with such speed? What effect does this time factor have on the mitzvot that we fulfill?
Let us consider the reason things are done quickly. People act quickly for one of two reasons: either they want to get the task out of the way, in order to free themselves to do other things, or they are so eager that they cannot wait to perform the act in question.4
The former may be a very wise approach to life: When faced with arduous tasks, procrastination is often the worst course of action. Tasks begin to pile up, and what at first was difficult soon becomes impossible. Yet despite the wisdom of this approach, it is not necessarily a proper attitude in the performance of mitzvot: We do not perform mitzvot in order to "get them out of the way". Mitzvot should be performed because we wish to adhere to the Word of God, because we wish to have a relationship with God. The performance of mitzvot is an expression of love; love is not something to be rushed through, to be gotten out of the way.
The Maharal explains the idea of quickness in the performance of mitzvot by noting the metaphysical nature inherent in our relationship with God. We are physical beings, we exist in a physical universe, yet each time we perform a mitzva we are engaging in a metaphysical gesture: the One who commanded us is not physical, therefore the mitzva is the link between a physical being in a physical plane, and a metaphysical being in a metaphysical plane.5
The Maharal describes our performance of mitzvot with speed as an expression of our desire to leave the confines of our physical existence, to break through to the metaphysical reality. As humans, we exist in a world defined by time, space and matter; the performance of a mitzva is an expression of our desire to break the limits of time and establish a true relationship with God who transcends time. A mitzva is a vehicle, in which we take the journey from the physical to the metaphysical state.
Significantly, this concept is derived from Pesach. So much of Pesach is about time; in fact, it was in the framework of Pesach that the Jews were given the mitzva of time.6 Our first mitzva as a nation involved the mastery of time; sanctifying time by establishing the start of each month enabled the Jews to begin to prepare for freedom. While physically still in Egypt, still enslaved, God instructed the Jewish People to consecrate time, to master time and use it as a means of transcending to a new state of metaphysical existence. This enabled them to begin the process of redemption. They were then instructed to "guard" the Paschal Lamb for a precise time period, and then to adhere to a careful timetable in the bringing of the sacrifice. They were told to prepare and eat the Pesach offering rapidly, to roast, not boil, the meat,7 ostensibly the most rapid method of cooking.8 Their bread for this Pesach feast was to be most rapidly prepared. All of these elements of Pesach point in the same direction: This holiday is about quickness; it is about speed. This nation of slaves, no masters of their time, controlled and ordered by other men, are given mastery of time: Man, confined and defined by time, learns to rise above time. When we perform mitzvot quickly, we demonstrate our desire to leave the confines of time, to relate to the Eternal God who is unconfined by the dimensions that rule human history. Pesach is a holiday where we transcend time.9
THE SECOND DIMENSION
Perhaps this idea is even more far-reaching: The second major festival in the Jewish calendar is Shavuot, the holiday that commemorates the Giving of the Torah at Mount Sinai. Strangely, this location is lost to us: Our national consciousness has not retained coordinates for what was once the holiest place on Earth.
The holiness of Mount Sinai was akin to the holiness of the Beit Hamikdash: In preparation for the Giving of the Torah, the mountain was divided into different zones, each with its own level of holiness, with access permitted to different people, in a clear parallel of the structure of the Mishkan and the Beit Hamikdash. Yet this structure was secondary to the main aspect of the Sinaitic experience - the opening of the heavens, and the Voice of God which burst forth. Similarly, the Mishkan, which repeated and institutionalized the experience of Revelation at Sinai, was built in order to house the Tablets of Stone given on the Sixth of Sivan at Mount Sinai; the Voice of God that had rung out at Sinai now emanated from between the Keruvim atop the Ark of the Covenant.10
And the Keruvim shall stretch out their wings on high, covering the cover with their wings, and their faces shall look one to another; toward the cover shall the faces of the Keruvim be. And you shall put the cover upon the ark; and in the ark you shall put the testimony that I shall give you. And there I will meet with you, and I will talk with you from above the cover, from between the two Keruvim which are upon the Ark of the Testimony, of all things which I will give you in commandment to the People of Israel. (Shmot 25:20-22)
Unlike the Beit Hamikdash, as soon as the Torah was given, Mount Sinai became mundane. The geographic location of the place of Revelation became insignificant; only the content of the Revelation is celebrated by Shavuot.
The holiday of Shavuot is about transcending the dimension of space. In much the same vein, the Talmudic discussion of the Holy of Holies reveals an easily-overlooked feature of the Ark:
So said Rabbi Levi: This is transmitted to us by tradition from our fathers: The place of the Ark is not given to measurement. And Rabbanai said in the name of Shmuel: The Keruvim stood by sheer miracle. Talmud Bavli Yoma 21:1) 11
The dimensions of the Mishkan are transmitted in the Torah with great precision, including exact measurements for the various chambers and the placement of each of the holy vessels within them. The measurements for the Holy of Holies include the exact dimensions of the Ark of the Covenant, and the precise placement of the Ark. Yet these measurements create a physical impossibility: The Ark was placed in the center of the Holy of Holies, a chamber of 20 square cubits, yet there were ten cubits of empty space between the walls of the chamber and each side of the Ark. In other words, the Ark did not consume any physical space.12 It transcended space. Much like Sinai experience, the Ark of the Covenant was neither defined nor confined by space; the essential element was the content, not the location of the Revelation. The physical construct that housed the Tablets of Stone somehow transcended space, and fit in to the Mishkan perfectly.13 Although physical, the Ark and the Tablets belong to a metaphysical reality. Similarly, Shavuot, the day of the Giving of the Torah, is about transcending space.
THE THIRD DIMENSION
The resounding final chord of the Jewish year is the third major festival, Sukkot. We are commanded to leave the comforts of home and enter a temporary abode.
The first time Sukkot is mentioned in the Torah, it is as a holiday of the harvest:
...and the Feast of Ingathering, which is at the end of the year, when you have gathered in your labors from the field. (Shmot 23:16)
Later in the book of D'varim the text offers more specific information:
You shall observe Sukkot (the Feast of Tabernacles) seven days, after you have gathered in your grain and your wine. (Dvarim 16:13)
Rashi explains that the sukka is made from the refuse of the stalk and vine; from "garbage" we make a sukka.14 We use what would otherwise be considered refuse, and fashion a home. Sukkot is a holiday where we recognize that this entire world is a temporary abode, a dirat araie. 15 To remind ourselves of the inconsequential nature of our physical possessions, the fleeting and impermanent character of our worldly reality, we leave our "real homes" and enter temporary homes made of materials which are normally rejected and discarded. Sukkot is about transcending matter.
The physical universe is defined by time, space and matter; this is our reality, this is our experience. Yet we know that there is another existence just beyond that which is confirmed by our senses, beyond our limitations. Each of the three major festivals works in a separate realm, a separate dimension of human existence, to help us achieve transcendence. When properly understood and observed, the three festivals enable us to connect with the Infinite, the Eternal - to break through the borders of our limited existence.
In truth, each and every time we perform a mitzva - any mitzva - we should feel that we are entering a new and different realm, the metaphysical realm of God. Every mitzva should be transformative, and should leave us completely changed, for by performing a mitzva, by fulfilling a commandment of the Eternal God, we break through the barriers that define our physical universe. We create and sustain a relationship with the Transcendent God.
The word tzav means 'command', as in the word mitzva, commandment. When such a commandment is given to us, we ought not delay or tarry. We should see it as an opportunity to break through the confines of time, and come to a different place - a place which transcends time, space and matter; the Place that is God.16
1. This Talmudic source appears in a discussion of another topic altogether. Rashi's association of our present subject, the sacrificial rites of the olah, with the need for speed - is not easily understood, and is debated by other commentaries. See the comments of the Siftei Hachamim and the Mizrahi on Vayikra 6:1.
2. Mechilta Bo section 9.
3. See Maharal comments on Aggda Chulin page 92.
4. See the beautiful description of zerizut in the Mesilat Yesharim, Chapter 7: We were therefore warned by our Sages of blessed memory (Mechilta Shemoth 12:17), " 'Watch over the matzoth' - if a mitzva presents itself to you, do not permit it to go stale"; and (Nazir 23b), ... and (Pesachim 4a), "The zealous advance themselves towards mitzvot"; and (Berachoth 66), "A man should always run to perform a mitzva, even on the Sabbath." And in the Midrash it is stated, (Vayikra Rabbah 11:8), " 'He will guide us eternally '(Psalms 48:15), - with Zeal, as young maids ["eternally" and "young maids" are similarly constructed in the Hebrew], as it is said (Psalms 68:26), '...in the midst of young maids playing upon timbrels.' " The possession of Zeal constitutes an extremely high level of spiritual development, which a person's nature prevents him from attaining at once. He who strengthens himself, however, and acquires as much of Zeal as he is able to, will, in time to come, truly attain to it. The Creator, may His Name be blessed, will present it to him as a reward for having striven for it during the time of his service.
5. See Maharal Gur Aryeh on Sh'mot 12:17, Netivot Olam Netivat Torah, chapter 17.
6. See Shmot 12:1.
7. See Shmot 12:9-12.
8. For more on Matzah and speed, see my essay "The Matzah of Lot" in Emanations: Essays on the Holidays.
9. Even in Egypt, at the first Seder, on the night before they left Egypt, the Jews who performed all the mitzvot of Pesach succeeded in transcending time: They sat around the table, still slaves, dressed in their travelling clothes and eating matza - the symbol of the haste with which they would leave Egypt the following day! They were simultaneously living in the present and the future. So, too, each and every Jew at each and every Seder throughout history is taught to live simultaneously in the present and the past: "In every generation, a person is obligated to see himself as if he were personally liberated from Egypt." For more on this theme, see my notes on Parshat Bo in Explorations. Also see Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, Pachad Yitzchak -Pesach, first Ma'amar.
10. See Ramban Shmot 25:2.
11. Also see Talmud Bavli Baba Batra 99a, Megila 10b.
12. See Rashi's comments on Yoma 21b, and the comments of the Vilna Gaon found in the Kol Eliyahu, on Aggadot Brachot 47b.
13. See the Comments of Rabbenu Bachya Sh'mot 25:10.
14. See Rashi Dvarim 16:13, see Rosh Hashana 13a, Sukka 12a.
15. See Talmud Bavli Sukka 2a,21b,23a.
16. God Himself, who is not a physical being, is often referred to in Jewish tradition as HaMakom – "The Place" or, less literally, The Omnipresent. Rav Yosef Dov Soloveitchik spoke about the use of "Hamakom" as a name of God in various lectures on the Haggadah. See my notes on the Rav's Haggadah http://rabbiarikahn.com/therav.html.