You shall not leave the entrance of the Tent of Meeting for seven days, until the day that your period of ordination is completed. For your ordination will require seven days. Everything done today, the Lord has commanded to be done to make expiation for you. You shall remain at the entrance of the Tent of Meeting day and night for seven days, keeping the Lord’s charge [vigil] — that you may not die — for thus I was commanded. Vayikra 8:33-35)
The sacred fire is kindled still:
no flood could douse the blaze;
protected through the centuries
the light has been sustained.
But labyrinthine palisades,
accretions of the years,
were zealously constructed
to insulate the flames.
Far out on the periphery
the glow is faint and cool,
and those who seek the radiance
must penetrate the maze.
Parashat Tsav opens with a description of the ritual burnt offering and continues immediately with the injunction, shortly after repeated, that the fire on the altar should burn perpetually and not be allowed to die out. The Rabbis teach that the Torah itself is analogous to this fire – a gift of God requiring humans to tend it and perpetuate it. The parashah concludes with the investiture of the priests.
In his book The Fire and the Cloud: Contemporary Reflections on the Weekly Torah Reading, Rabbi David Bigman notes that after the sanctification of the priests and the Tabernacle, Moses instructs Aaron and his sons to remain inside the Tabernacle for a week. He remarks that before we address the content of Moses’ instruction, we immediately notice the strange phrase with which Moses concludes, “…for thus I was commanded”. Rabbi Bigman wonders why Moses added these words – surely it is obvious that the command has been given by God. He suggests it indicates a need to strengthen Moses’ words and he speculates what in this passage might require explicit divine endorsement.
He says that the passage itself contains a reasonable explanation. Moses tells the priests to keep God’s “charge,” or as Rabbi Bigman translates it,”vigil”. He continues, “…if this were not written in the Torah, one would be forbidden from saying it! Is God in need of a vigil? Does He need to be guarded? This is a surprising anthropomorphism – it is as if God were physically present within the Tabernacle, constantly protected by His attending priests.”
Rabbi Bigman explains that Moses has to add the words “for thus I was commanded” in order to rectify the misapprehension that the aim of the vigil is to protect God, when in fact it is simply because He decreed it. He suggests that these ideas apply in our own day and age, “It is clear to us that God is not in need of our protection, but don’t we sometimes treat Him and His Torah as if they were? It would seem that the decrees of the early Rabbis that extended the purview of the commandments touch the heart of this question. Does our Torah really need to be protected by extending the range of its prohibitions? Isn’t it within the Torah’s power to protect its own observance?”
Rabbi Bigman cites the Talmud (Yevamot 21a) in which Rabbi Kahana comments on a very similar phrase in the final verse in Parashat Acharei Mot: “You shall keep My charge [vigil]…” (Vayikra 18:30) which led the Rabbis to the concept of “making a fence around the Torah” – expanding the domain of the prohibited to protect the Torah, now and in the future, from inadvertent violation. Rabbi Bigman pinpoints the Sages’ dilemma in the balancing of two opposing tendencies, “On the one hand, they are commanded to set up a “vigil” to ensure the observance of the Torah; on the other hand such moves may be inappropriate, since they assume the Torah is in need of protection. More than anyone else, those charged with overseeing the practical observance of the Torah must avoid creating the impression that they are its “guardians.” Their role is to establish only those halakhic decrees necessary to allow people to observe the commandments while remaining aware that the Torah itself has no need for their protection.”
In the introduction to his book, For God’s sake!? Perspectives on Chumrot [Stringencies], Chaim Burg briefly surveys how the Jewish people has undergone a tumultuous history and radical changes: from desert nomads to an agricultural society; from twelve disparate tribes to a unified and later divided kingdom; from life in its sovereign land to a scattered people in Diaspora, and then back to its own land. The major thread that traverses the entire story is the Torah – wherever they were, the Torah guided every aspect of their lives. The Torah, given at Sinai, remains unchanged, but the Halachah, the practical application, can change and has done so. Burg points out, “To remain viable in the varied history of the Jewish people, practices of Jewish law had to go through changes, adaptations and variations. These are reflected in the multitude of customs, practices and rabbinic decisions over the years.”
Burg notes that aspects of practice could be changed because of “Halacha’s (Jewish law’s) internal, built-in flexibility” and rulings could be less or more stringent as long as they fell within the framework of Torah. He adds that changes were introduced to protect the observant way of life, or to protect the people, sometimes from the surrounding population.
He remarks that Halachic decisions by rabbis both famous and less so, have varied from the very strict to the very lenient. The tendency, he notes, has been to choose the more conservative and stringent opinions because the assumption is that the flow would always tend to increasing leniency over time. And he notes, “…when we look at so many of the practices and rulings of the current era we see that leniency (kulah) is out – stringency (chumrah) is in.”
In her book, Off the Derech: Why Observant Jews Leave Judaism, How to Respond to the Challenge, Faranak Margolese has a chapter entitled “Narrow definitions of being observant” in which she says, “Being properly observant today involves meeting a very narrow and well-defined criterion that involves not only halachah but also a host of other requirements regarding beliefs, dress, conduct, and other things that inherently have nothing to do with religiosity.” She notes, “This is particularly problematic when our definitions of proper observance have more to do with our own expectations than God’s. When our definitions move outside the realm of halachah as they often do, they have the added undesired effect of replacing God and His Torah as the measure of what is right with ourselves.” She adds that narrow definitions blur the understanding of proper observance, “Narrow definitions make the road sometimes too narrow to walk; they create an all or nothing attitude, blur the real meaning of what it means to be frum [observant], and displace God as the measure of proper behavior. This makes it all too easy to go off the derech [path] – or rather to fall off of it.” Margolese concludes that ultimately, differentiating between halachah and chumrah and broadening the road as much as possible facilitates orientation somewhere on the highway of Jewish life.