Tzav 5764

Posted on March 23, 2011

by Anna Hutt

Can you imagine ever doing something so bad that even your family or another fellow Jew wouldn’t forgive you? Judaism is a religion that believes in second chances; is there any sin so horrible that a Jew could be cut off from his people completely?

The name of this week’s parsha is Tzav, which means command (coinicidentally found on page 613 of the Etz Hayim Chumash!). It consists almost entirely of Hashem’s instructions to Moshe regarding Aaron and the other kohanim. Tzav is full of rather graphic, detailed descriptions of all the ceremonies to be performed for various burnt offerings, grain offerings, purification offerings, reparation offerings, ordination offerings and well-being sacrifices.

While the parsha itself may be rather mind-boggling for Jews living in a world without a Beit Hamikdash (temple), there is one verse that raises a concept that all can wonder about: that of being cut off from one’s people eternally.

Leviticus 7:20 states: “But the person who, in a state of impurity, eats flesh from the Lord’s sacrifices of well-being, that person shall be cut off from his kin.”

The end of this verse, the Hebrew phrase “nich’retah hanefesh hahi me’ameha,” appears not just once or twice, but four times in the parsha (one time as a variation of this exact wording).

Contemplating this concept of karet, spiritual excision, is difficult. What does it mean to be cut off from one’s kin? Interestingly, as was discussed at Heschel Kinnus last weekend, the Torah uses the word “nefesh” to mean person; nefesh is often translated as “soul” and refers not to the physical, but the internal identity of a Jew.

Rashi writes that the punishment of karet really implies death to one’s children, thus cutting off the sinner’s line of heritage in the Jewish people for all eternity. Ramban, however, believes that the punishment of being cut off depends upon the severity of the crime and how meritorious the person is besides this one wrongdoing. He states that if a person is mostly righteous but breaks one of the commandments in Parshat Tzav, he may die young or childless but will keep his share in Olam Habah, the world to come, and thus only be cut off from the Jewish people temporarily, on earth.

This Shabbat, which is Shabbat Hagadol (immediately preceding Pesach), we look ahead to eight days of rather stringent commandments. The punishment for eating chametz on Pesach is also karet, having one’s soul cut off from the Jewish people (“nich’retah hanefesh hahi mi’yisrael” in Exodus 12:15). By considering Ramban’s interpretation, we can perhaps take the phrase as a positive reminder instead of viewing it as a warning of eternal punishment. We can see it as a reminder that if we do obey Hashem, we will remain spiritually connected to our people not only while we are living but even after death when only our souls remain. Shabbat Shalom and Chag Pesach Sameach!