Hard as it is to believe, yesterday marked the end of my first week of student-teaching in New York. The high school I’m interning at is really an unbelievable place and I’m learning a lot– not only about teaching and learning, but what kinds of things I can buy in Columbus Circle and which subways to ride.
On Thursday, the entire school participated in a number of chesed (acts of loving-kindness) programs to mark Taanit Esther (Fast of Esther), a day recorded in the story of Purim when Esther and the Jewish People fast for several days before she approaching King Achashverosh to beg him to save the Jewish People from Haman’s genocidal plot. Small groups of students were sent to different locations to partake in various projects. I was fortunate to accompany a group to a public school near 96th Street to read with kindergarten and 2nd graders who don’t have many opportunities to read at home. During the program, I asked another teacher if these high school students are obligated to complete a certain number of hours of community service. The teacher replied, “No. Our principal believes that community service should not be made mandatory. Having said that, there are many students who are involved in volunteer projects outside of school hours.”
Her response certainly made me stop and think: Should community service be obligatory? Maybe that’s antithetical to the values of volunteerism and selflessly helping others? Or is compulsory volunteering in high school an effective way to bring students to appreciate community service and integrate it into their routine beyond their school requirements?
Funnily enough, I think that much of the language of this week’s parsha, Parshat Tzav picks up on this question. The parsha opens with the words:
ב) צַו אֶת-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת-בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר, זֹאת תּוֹרַת הָעֹלָה
2) Command Aaron and his sons, saying: This is the law of the burnt-offering… (Leviticus 6:2)
The Torah lists in detail the sacrifices which Aaron and the rest of the kohanim (priests) must bring in the Tabernacle (and later, once the Temple is built in Jerusalem). In relaying this information to the kohanim, the Torah uses the language of obligation: “Command Aaron and his sons”. Furthermore, this language would seem to imply that the kohanim are meant to perform ritual acts blindly, as a fulfillment of God’s word– nothing more, nothing less.
But later in the parsha the Torah offers another type of sacrifice which is voluntary; it is called a nedavah offering. Introducing this sacrifice, the Torah says:
טז) וְאִם-נֶדֶר אוֹ נְדָבָה, זֶבַח קָרְבָּנוֹ–בְּיוֹם הַקְרִיבוֹ אֶת-זִבְחוֹ, יֵאָכֵל; וּמִמָּחֳרָת, וְהַנּוֹתָר מִמֶּנּוּ יֵאָכֵל
16) But if the sacrifice of his offering be a vow, or a freewill-offering, it shall be eaten on the day that he offers his sacrifice; and on the morrow that which remains of it may be eaten. (Leviticus 7:16)
What stands out in this verse is the conjunction used: “if“. This would indicate that a nedavah offering is voluntary and yet there are many prescribed regulations for it to be a fitting offering. My sense is that the parsha picks up on this tension between obligatory and voluntary religious expression. On the one hand, the Torah requires the kohanim to perform specific ritual acts on behalf of the nation. On the other hand, the Torah welcomes an individual’s contribution to the Tabernacle.
But, the most compelling commentary that I read on this issue in the parsha is written by one of the great Hasidic masters, Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzsk. He explains the following verses:
לז) זֹאת הַתּוֹרָה, לָעֹלָה לַמִּנְחָה, וְלַחַטָּאת, וְלָאָשָׁם; וְלַמִּלּוּאִים–וּלְזֶבַח, הַשְּׁלָמִים
37) This is the law of the burnt-offering, of the meal-offering, and of the sin-offering, and of the guilt-offering, and of the consecration-offering, and of the sacrifice of peace-offerings;
לח) אֲשֶׁר צִוָּה יְהוָה אֶת-מֹשֶׁה, בְּהַר סִינָי: בְּיוֹם צַוֹּתוֹ אֶת-בְּנֵי יִשְׂרָאֵל, לְהַקְרִיב אֶת-קָרְבְּנֵיהֶם לַיהוָה–בְּמִדְבַּר סִינָי
38 ) which the LORD commanded Moses in mount Sinai, in the day that he commanded the children of Israel to present their offerings unto the LORD, in the wilderness of Sinai. (Leviticus 7:37-38)
Rabbi Menachem Mendel punctuates the verse very artfully and reads it as follow: “This is the Torah (הַתּוֹרָה ): to rise (לָעֹלָה), to give generously ( לַמִּנְחָה)”; this is what “the LORD commanded Moses on Mount Sinai”. In other words, the sacrifices which the kohanim, and sometimes the Jewish People, need to bring the Tabernacle are meant to strengthen one’s relationship with the community and with the divine. More than that, these acts are intended to reinforce paramount values and characteristics– giving selflessly, righteousness, empathy and humility. But sometimes we need a command, an exterior force to participate in activities which promote these values with the hope that we will internalize them. And yet, there are occasions when we choose to express our commitment to a cause on our own initiative.
I suppose the question we need to ask ourselves is: when do I need an exterior command to do good? and when can I rely on my own motivations to do so? I challenge us all, especially in light of the tragedies we have witnessed throughout the world in the last few weeks and in the spirit of matanot la’evyonim (giving gifts to the poor) on Purim, to decipher our motivations for doing good in the world.
With God’s help, the lines between the commanded and the volunteer become irrelevant, so that ultimately–whatever our motivations–we can actualize our commitments to righteousness, empathy, giving and humility!
Shavua tov and Purim Sameach!