Parsha Tzav: Just Do It (Because You Have Been Commanded)

Motivation is a big issue in modern life. Most of us lack it at least some of the time, and the internet is teeming with things to get you motivated. There are millions of pictures with imagery of powerful animals, people standing victoriously on mountain tops and using a pair of scissors to turn "I can't" into "I can". 

If those don't work for you there are apps for your phone that gamify your goals. Create an avatar, compete against your friends, and "level up" as you earn points, badges and rewards. Any habit will do, from adding protein powder to your smoothie to reading to your child at night. Nothing is too trivial or important. 

God Doesn't Ask; He Commands

This week's Torah portion is Tzav, which literally means "command." God speaks to Moses and says:

צַו אֶת-אַהֲרֹן וְאֶת-בָּנָיו לֵאמֹר
Command Aaron and his sons, saying:

God doesn't say:
"Give Aaron and his sons these instructions about sacrifices in the tabernacle." 
"Offer Aaron this responsibility." 

And definitely not:
"Run these instructions by Aaron, get his feedback for revisions, and then let's start negotiating the process for keeping the holy fire tended."

These are commands, and commands are to be carried out by the commanded. To be frank, I'm a little jealous of Aaron and his sons. They don't need any motivation to carry out their responsibilities. They have been commanded, and because of their covenant with God, they obey. 

Choices are demanding, and modern Jews have saddled themselves with hundreds of decisions that our ancestors, even our recent ones, never considered. From the mundane (is it ok to eat a pork chop?) to the sacred (is it ok to work on Shabbat?). 

My great-grandmother never had to be motivated to keep a kosher kitchen or clean cabinets and change dishes for Passover. It's what you did, and it was a mitzvah, a commandment, to do so. (Can you tell that I'm putting off cleaning for Passover by writing this blog? Shh.)

Recent generations have taken great pride in throwing off religious systems that command certain behaviors and lifestyles. We are all "Jew by choice," we are told, with the added luxury of getting to choose how we express our Judaism. We are free to sift among the "commandments" and follow some, disobey others, and disregard many of them completely. I am most certainly one of those Jews, and as an educator, I love when teens find something in Torah they can really grasp onto and use in their modern, non-observant lives. I wonder, though, if I am doing them a disservice, teaching them to bend the Torah to their lives instead of changing their lives for Torah.

My Orthodox/observant friends generally don't struggle with following the commandments. I once asked such a friend if he ever snuck a bite of a cheeseburger, just to see what he was missing. "No," he said, "keeping kosher is my field of new, untrod snow, and I don't want to ruin it by trampling on it. I want to keep it perfect." He doesn't have to wrestle with the desire to eat treif (non-kosher) food, because he doesn't have the desire. 

"I have no choice"
Steve Jobs famously wore the same outfit every day, eliminating the "What to wear?" decision from his life.
Modern Americans are all about choice, and it can be overwhelming. Go into a grocery store sometime and just try and count the varieties of tea available for purchase. I don't know about you, but when I was a kid in the 70s and 80s there was just "tea." Hot or iced, perhaps, but still just "tea." 

And so we stand there in the tea aisle, or the coffee shop, or the store with 50 styles and fits of pants, overwhelmed by the choices. I've often thought, "Someone just tell me what to buy," which is really a plea to be commanded, to have the choice removed.

As Frankfurt-born psychoanalyst Erich Fromm writes:

"In the process of becoming freed from authority, we are often left with feelings of hopelessness... that will not abate until we use our 'freedom to' and develop some form of replacement of the old order." 
Removing the choice about whether or not to do something is, paradoxically, liberating. Most of us don't lie in bed in the morning wavering about whether or not to go to our jobs, or go to school. We may not do so happily, but we've taken on an obligation, so we go. In contrast, we've all put off tasks that are optional, even if they are also important. (Going to the gym, walking the dog, cleaning the bathroom, taking vitamins, balancing the checkbook, etc.) To do those things, we need the magical ingredient: motivation.

In the Torah, Aaron was commanded to keep the fire burning:

ה  וְהָאֵשׁ עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ תּוּקַד-בּוֹ לֹא תִכְבֶּה, וּבִעֵר עָלֶיהָ הַכֹּהֵן עֵצִים בַּבֹּקֶר בַּבֹּקֶר; וְעָרַךְ עָלֶיהָ הָעֹלָה, וְהִקְטִיר עָלֶיהָ חֶלְבֵי הַשְּׁלָמִים.5 And the fire upon the altar shall be kept burning thereby, it shall not go out; and the priest shall kindle wood on it every morning; and he shall lay the burnt-offering in order upon it, and shall make smoke thereon the fat of the peace-offerings.
ו  אֵשׁ, תָּמִיד תּוּקַד עַל-הַמִּזְבֵּחַ--לֹא תִכְבֶּה.  {ס}6 Fire shall be kept burning upon the altar continually; it shall not go out. 
Aaron receiving the weight of his priestly vestments.
God didn't really care if Aaron felt like adding wood to the fire each day and making the offerings. The fire staying lit wasn't based on Aaron's morning motivation to do so. He had agreed at the base of Mt Sinai that all God commanded, he would do. 

No motivational posters, apps, or Fitbit required -- Aaron tended the fire and performed the sacrifices.

Who Commands Us?
Modern Jews often find themselves in a quandary when it comes to following the rules of Judaism. The Torah and God are, in Fromm's terms, the "old order" which we have shaken off in an effort to feel and be more free. Fromm goes on to suggest that those who don't use this "freedom from" properly will look for replacements for the old order and often turn to authoritarianism, destructiveness, and conformity. (Fromm argues that this is how Nazi culture took hold in the 1930s. The old order dissolved and people were disoriented by their own freedom, so they accepted Nazi authority.)

That's damn scary, and it's not what I'm suggesting here. Many believe there is no higher authority to answer to, no one to do the commanding. You'll get no argument from me; believing in the truth of the Torah and accepting its divine origins would certainly make it easier for me to follow the rules. I'm not willing to make that jump, and I doubt most of my Jewish contemporaries are either.

Go Ahead, Be Obligated. 

We command ourselves, sure, but what if we play a little mind game with ourselves? What if we take on a mitzvah, just one, as if we are commanded to? Whether or not our motivation waxes and wanes, we have been commanded to perform the mitzvah, we have agreed to obey, and so we do.

There are a lot of mitzvot to choose from: (Of the 613 commandments in the Torah, 365 are negative/don't do commandments, and 248 are positive.) For this exercise, let's take on a simple, positive commandment of Jewish prayer.** Here are some easy daily practices:
  1. Say the Shema twice daily — Deut 6:7 (Link to Shema)
  2. Pray every day — Exodus 23:25 (Use the Amidah or another Jewish prayer. Link to Reform Version)
  3. Bless the Almighty after eating — Deuteronomy 8:10 (Link to short version of the Birkat Hamazon)
  4. To learn Torah — Deut 6:7 (Link to list of the weekly parsha here. Each parsha is divided into 7 different readings, so you can do one each day.)

Accept the obligation to recite one of these daily, as if you were commanded. 
Do it the same way every day -- whichever form of the Amidah or the Birkat Hamazon you choose, use it every day. 
Try it for a week.
Share with me (or someone else) your experience.

I'm taking on #2, reciting the Amidah each day. What do you choose?

*Mitzvah in Hebrew comes from the same root as tzav, and although many people now think of a mitzvah as a "good deed," "commandment" is a more accurate translation. There are 613 mitzvot (commandments) in the Torah, not 613 "good deeds".]
** I chose prayer specifically because these prayers are uniquely Jewish. There are other commandments to choose from. Here's a list: all:

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