June 20, 2024
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June 20, 2024
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How Big and Small Mitzvot Guide Us on a Path to Teshuva

This week’s parsha, known as Tzav, begins as follows: “And the Lord spoke to Moshe, saying, ‘Tzav! Command Aaron and his sons.’”

Immediately, the usual formula is disrupted. Usually when God speaks to Moshe, He says, “Say to Aaron,” or “Say to the people,” not “Command them.” Why is the formula different here? Why does He say, “Tzav—Command Aaron and his sons.”?

Let’s look back. Just a few weeks ago we read about the sin of the Golden Calf. Aaron was complicit in that breach, a grave assault on the most basic of the Ten Commandments. “You shall have no other gods beside Me,” says God.

Perhaps this command in this parasha is both a reminder and an opportunity. It is an opportunity for Aaron to do his teshuvah. God is saying, “Remember, Aaron, don’t forget, you acknowledged your responsibility, you asked for forgiveness, now is your chance to make a different choice. So do it!” In this text we see that even Aaron the High Priest needs to be encouraged, through commandment, to follow through.

We live in a time when many of us have difficulty with the word command. The idea of being commanded can be a real struggle. We don’t want to be told what we have to do. We do the right thing because people usually do the right thing. That’s human nature. Right? Well, not exactly, not always. People—we—often make the wrong choice. We do the wrong thing. The thing we know is not really right, but we do it anyway.

The fact is, being commanded is both hard and easy. It is hard because it feels coercive. But it iss easy because having commandments give us a structure. And having a structure provides order to our lives. That’s what the commandments give us—order. And order gives us space for freedom.

Now that we know what our choices are, we have the freedom to choose. Pirkei Avot, ch. 3:19, tells us, “All is foreseen, but freedom of choice is given.”

Life is all about the choices we make. Again, we are advised in the same mishna, “The world is judged with goodness, but all depends on the majority of one’s deeds.” This teaches that we are not inevitably condemned by our wrong choices. It’s about how we respond and do it the next time. When we or a loved one is struggling with addiction or mental health challenges and need to find the strength to do it differently, we need to remember, it’s hard. Even Aaron needs coaching. He also needs a place to start. So God instructs him with another mitzvah. Sometimes it is as simple as the choice to take out the garbage.

Take out the garbage? You may be raising your eyebrows. But here it is, in the first lines of our parsha; Aaron and his sons are instructed to let the olah sacrifice burn all night, and when it is done, Leviticus chapter 6, verses 3-4 tells us, “The priest shall take away the ashes and lay them beside the altar, change his clothes, and then take the ashes outside of the camp.” The High Priest must take out the garbage.

It’s a simple command. Some might say small. Why would God give the High Priest this particular mitzvah? It reminds me of something my friend, Harriet Rossetto, teaches in her book, Sacred Housekeeping. She tells us, “Make your bed!” Making your bed gives you a fresh start. It creates a space that is more welcoming for return and more organized. And it’s simple. It’s a small step. “Make your bed!” may not be a biblical commandment, but it’s not so different from “Take out the garbage!” Maybe, when we are learning to follow commandments, we need to start small. And maybe starting small is a way for us to begin the process of teshuva. Harriet has firsthand experience with the process. She is the founder of Beit T’Shuvah in Los Angeles, a Jewish faith-based home for recovery from addictions of all kinds.

Making our beds and taking out the garbage have the same function in our lives. They provide structure through ritual. They give us beginnings and endings. And they ask us to evaluate what really matters. What is the “garbage” that we have been holding onto in our lives? What can’t we throw away? How is holding on holding us back?

These are all lessons that are embedded in the simple commandment to Aaron and his sons to take out the garbage. When God said, “Tzav,” command Aaron, God was really giving Aaron a gift. He was showing Aaron where to start on the road toward return. Let’s look at commandment as a gift to us, a how-to guide with both big and small steps to help us live more meaningful and intentional lives. Shabbat shalom.

By Lisa Lisser

Lisa Lisser is a freelance Jewish educator focused on adult Jewish learners. She is also a board member of The T’Shuvah Center, a residential addiction recovery facility that will be opening in NYC in the fall. Lisa can be reached at [email protected].

Since the passing of her son Eric by suicide in 2016, Eta Levenson and her family founded the Eric Eliezer Levenson Foundation for Hope to fight the stigmatization of mental illness, raise awareness about mental health challenges and help prevent suicide. She can be reached at [email protected].

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