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Urgency, Sustainability, and Constancy

03/26/2021 12:18:00 PM


          Shabbat Shalom! This week’s Torah portion is Parashat Tzav, in which more details of the various sacrifices introduced last week are described. There are a few choice lines and possible interpretations of this parasha, but this week the word “tzav” itself is really catching me. It is the same root as the word mitzvah, but in the imperative. There is something doubly insistent about commanding someone to command.

          Rashi says, “The expression tzav (“command”) implies an urging for now and for future generations.” Chizkuni, another French rabbi and Torah commentator from about 150 years after Rashi, expands, “Whenever the expression tzav is used, it is a commandment to be performed with alacrity, without delay, and is meant to apply indefinitely, not only for a limited period, i.e. one time.”

          There are a few things I feel commanded to command this week, mitzvot we should be better fulfilling with speed and with sustainability. There was a reprisal of triggering news about attempts to re-platform a particular Jewish sociologist who was ousted from his prestigious positions in Jewish leadership in 2018 after years of abuse and sexual harassment. There were two mass shootings in the news in as many weeks. And there is ongoing struggle between convenience of massive corporations versus the human rights of working people.

          Although the news of the Jewish sociologist strikes me in a more personal way, as a woman and as a product of an interfaith marriage which he publicly demeaned for years – unsurprisingly focusing a lot of his scholarly energy on promoting an ideology of women primarily as baby-makers – it also strikes me as deeply tragic that we are still hearing of the dangerous working conditions of Amazon employees and others in similar warehouse and shipping industries.

          Yesterday was the 110th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. It was the deadliest industrial disaster in New York City and one of the deadliest in the history of the United States. Of the 143 victims killed in the tragedy, the vast majority were young women or even teenage girls and were largely Italian and/or Jewish immigrants. The scope of the deaths was due mostly to the fact that the workers were locked in to the workrooms, unable to escape when the fire broke out. Today, horror stories continue to leak out about warehouse jobs with dangerous working conditions, employees locked in without access to bathrooms, long hours without breaks, delivery drivers forced to pee in bottles, and union busting everywhere, despite laws passed in the aftermath of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire specifically intended to put a stop to such things. The mitzvot to engage in fair business practices and to treat every person as a reflection of the Divine has not been pursued urgently or with eternity in mind. This is unfortunately as true for some Jewish-owned businesses (including Orthodox Jewish-owned) as others. The dismissal of these commandments is heartbreaking, infuriating, and when done by visible Jews it is frankly embarrassing.

          These horrible working conditions for minimum wage employees, often including immigrants with few other options, is exploitative on a level not far from slavery. This week, as we slide from Shabbat Tzav into Pesach, the holiday of our liberation from slavery, we would do well to reflect on the persistence of Pharaoh’s in our day. When we read the Haggadah, we are commanded to experience the story as though we ourselves were slaves in Egypt and we ourselves are experiencing freedom for the first time. This is not merely rhetoric or a practice in Bibliodrama. This is an act of intensifying our empathic abilities, an exercise of recognizing who around us is still enslaved, and a fortification of our commandments to work to free others. It is imperative that each and every Jewish person understand that they are required to actively pursue equality, freedom, and justice.

          So, Tzav. Command that others behave more justly, hold business owners and politicians and community leaders accountable, and do your utmost to urgently pursue mitzvot now, that we may pave the way for future generations to continue on a righteous path. And May we all have a Chag Kasher v’Sameach. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.


Sun, September 26 2021 20 Tishrei 5782