Parshat Tzav


The Mussar teachers draw three major lessons from Parshat Tzav:

  • Character traits can be for the good or for the bad. What matters is how we use them. And for each individual, that will be different, depending on our circumstances and life-purpose.
  • Details matter.
  • Torah is about relationships. 

Vayikra (6:2-5)
Command Aaron and his sons thus. This is the ritual [torah] of the burnt offering: The burnt offering itself shall remain where it is burned upon the altar all night until morning, while the fire on the altar is kept going on it. The priest shall dress in linen raiment לָבַ֨שׁ הַכֹּהֵ֜ן מִדּ֣וֹ בַ֗ד … The fire on the altar shall be kept burning, not to go out …”

Rabbi Shlomo Wolbe
It is attention to detail that is important in the eyes of the Torah … In Parashas Tzav, the Torah describes the korbanos in greater detail, and therefore prefaces its description with “This is the Torah of …” The details are referred to as Torah, and they give us the strength we need to battle our yetzer hara [evil inclination].

“The fire shall be kept burning …” If we were to ask a scientist, “What is fire?” we would receive a detailed explanation of fire’s properties; how a fire is started, what fuels it, etc. The Torah, on the other hand, enlightens us regarding the relationship we should have with fire: Fire is one of the four main things that cause damage, and one must therefore watch over his coals and compensate for any damage caused by a fire that he started. There are also mitzvos that must be performed with fires, such as the one mentioned in this parashah … This idea also holds true with regard to Hashem. The Torah does not tell us Who Hashem is, yet it does inform us of the relationship He has with us … We create a relationship with Hashem when we follow in His ways. … The Torah instructs a person as to the proper way to relate to everything in creation.

Thinking about relationships with people, what are examples of why details matter? 

Rabbi Wolbe specifically speaks of the thirteen attributes of mercy, and how we are in relationship with God when we emulate those attributes. What are the situations that require us to emulate the thirteen attributes of mercy? As a reminder, here are the thirteen attributes:

The 13 Attributes of Mercy, according to the generally accepted opinions of Rabbenu Tam and Abudraham, are as follows:

  • The Lord! (Adonai)–God is merciful before a person sins! Even though aware that future evil lies dormant within him.
  • The Lord! (Adonai)–God is merciful after the sinner has gone astray.
  • God (El)–a name that denotes power as ruler over nature and humankind, indicating that God’s mercy sometimes surpasses even the degree indicated by this name.
  • Compassionate (rahum)–God is filled with loving sympathy for human frailty does not put people into situations of extreme temptation, and eases the punishment of the guilty.
  • Gracious (v’hanun)–God shows mercy even to those who do not deserve it, consoling the afflicted and raising up the oppressed.
  • Slow to anger (ereh apayim)–God gives the sinner ample time to reflect, improve, and repent.
  • Abundant in Kindness (v’rav hesed)–God is kind toward those who lack personal merits, providing more gifts and blessings than they deserve; if one’s personal behavior is evenly balanced between virtue and sin, God tips the scales of justice toward the good.
  • Truth (v’emet)–God never reneges on His word to reward those who serve Him.
  • Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations (notzeir hesed la-alafim)–God remembers the deeds of the righteous for the benefit of their less virtuous generations of offspring (thus we constantly invoke the merit of the Patriarchs).
  • Forgiver of iniquity (nosei avon)–God forgives intentional sin resulting from an evil disposition, as long as the sinner repents.
  • Forgiver of willful sin (pesha)–God allows even those who commit a sin with the malicious intent of rebelling against and angering Him the opportunity to repent.
  • Forgiver of error (v’hata’ah)–God forgives a sin committed out of carelessness, thoughtlessness, or apathy.
  • Who cleanses (v’nakeh)–God is merciful, gracious, and forgiving, wiping away the sins of those who truly repent; however, if one does not repent, God does not cleanse.

(JPS Guide to Jewish Traditions)

מדו בד HIS LINEN ROBE — this is what is elsewhere termed the  כתונת, the undercoat; and why then is it here called middo? To intimate that it (the linen robe) must be made to his measure (middo from middato to “measure”).

Gaon of Vilna
The middot of a person should be like a garment, cut to his measure.

What makes a garment well-tailored? How might a person’s character traits be “well-tailored”? A phrase used in tailoring is “fit and finish” — what would that mean metaphorically when applied to a person?

Rabbi Y. Chaver
the Gaon explains that “being particular about one’s robe” refers to the middot of a person, as it says, “The Kohen shall wear his garment [middo] of linen–to his precise measurement” This means he must mold his middot and turn them into holiness. The Gaon has revealed a great depth of meaning here. The middot of a person are comprised of good and bad. … Middot [unlike mitzvot], have two sides … our task is to change our use of them from evil to good.

Rabbi Eliyahu Dessler
Middot are not diseases which need to be eradicated. On the contrary, they are all implanted in us for a good purpose.

Why is Rabbi Dessler laying so much stress on recognizing that middot (character traits) can be both good and evil — and that they are not a disease? How might this differ from a medical model of human behavior? What are the religious implications?