In one breath
TorahParshat Tzav

In one breath

Leviticus 6:1 – 8:36

(File photo)
(File photo)

“Tzav, command. This term is only used when Hashem wishes to motivate (ziruz) immediately and for all generations.” — Rashi

Parshas Tzav begins with the commandment to clear the ashes. Why does this mitzvah need extra motivation? What does Rashi mean by “for all generations”? Perhaps, whimsically, we can suggest that nobody wants to clean up! In fact, the competition for the mitzvah of terumas hadeshen, removal of the ashes from the altar, led to some rough jostling, causing kohanim to fall off the ramp. According to one version it led to a broken leg, but another version records a death resulting from the shoving.

There seems to have been plenty of enthusiasm. Was this the result of Hashem motivating them? Is this what was intended?

The shul membership of Congregation Anshei Rush-Rush wanted some interactive entertainment. They decided to have a competition to see who could finish davening in one breath. The test was: How many words could anyone say without catching their breath?

We certainly champion alacrity when it comes to mitzvah performance. We call that zerizus. The definition of zerizus is many things — alacrity, enthusiasm, diligence, meticulousness, motivation — all of which can be defined as being opposite to laziness and lethargy.

We say “zerizim makdimin lemitzvos,” people who excel in this attribute will hurry to perform mitzvos. This is the term used by the opening Rashi in today’s parsha, cited above. But speeding through davening is unlikely zerizus is at work. Why the hurry? Probably to get in, get out, get going! Not a very positive approach.

However, there is a real example of this in a ritual of the past few days. During the reading of the megillah, the Talmud says, one should read the names of the 10 sons of Haman in the same breath. They were all killed at the same moment, and all lost their neshama — breath — together. (See T.B. Megillah 16b. Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 690:15.) This is why the reader pauses at this point — to allow everyone to try the same trick! Then the reader tries it himself. Indeed, the reason given by many for the need for each individual to rush though it himself is that the reader might not articulate it well enough for the listeners to fulfill their obligation.

Well, then why do it at all? Why risk the improper fulfillment of the mitzvah?

The day the 10 sons of Haman were killed was a busy day; in that war in Shushan, 500 additional enemies of the Jews were killed. In the middle of a war, who would check to see that the 10 sons of Haman all died at the same moment? And what is the difference? While some say they were killed by hanging, which could have been coordinated so that they died at the same time, Rashi says clearly that they were first killed and then the bodies were hanged the next day. The 10 sons must have been together and killed at the same time. They all stopped breathing at exactly the same moment. At that moment, the Jews must have been struck by the miracle. Much like the miracle of the oil on Chanukah, this miracle reinforced the belief that what they were doing was divinely ordained.

It was revealed to Mordechai with ruach hakodesh, divine inspiration, that this miracle should be recorded by writing their names in a column, with textual nuances. The column represents a type of shira, joyful poem of praise. To commemorate this miracle, we read it in one breath. Nonetheless, the question remains: Why risk not saying it properly? Why the hurry? And what was the point of this miracle anyhow? What is the praise in this “breathtaking” poem?

The mitzvah to eradicate Amalek is to cleanse the world of their presence. The presence of Amalek “prevents” Hashem from asserting His kingship. Every last remnant must be removed, which is why, according to many commentaries, Ester requested an additional day to fight.

King Saul showed a certain hesitancy and laxity in implementing this. He was punished by having the crown removed from his family. The Jews of Shushan therefore moved with zerizus to implement this mitzvah. When they witnessed the miraculous death of the 10 sons in one moment, they took this as a sign that their zerizus was being acknowledged. Therefore, the miracle is commemorated by reciting the song in one breath.

The ashes on the mizbaiach may not be allowed to accumulate. It is unsightly and disrespectful. Their presence impedes the dignity of Hashem’s kingship in a certain sense. The removal of the ashes must be performed with zerizus. Not so our regular prayers. Rather, the faster they are said the more chance that one is not careful. Wishing to get away as soon as possible does not demonstrate zerizus, but a lack of care. Saying them carefully and with concentration demonstrates true zerizus, in the other senses of its meaning. This brings greater honor and glory to Hashem.

Unfortunately, it is human nature to lose enthusiasm when one does something regularly. With the passing generations, the mitzvah to remove the build-up of ashes might become too routine. Therefore, Hashem motivates this mitzvah for all generations. This is the lesson of the opening words of this parsha. In the same way, it is especially important to retain zerizus for tefilah. After all, it is one of the most routine activities. In contrast, reading the passuk of the 10 sons in one breath demonstrates zerizus in the mitzvah to eradicate Amalek. Reading it in one breath one day a year will not dilute the enthusiasm. It will increase it. PJC

Rabbi Shimon Silver is the spiritual leader of Young Israel of Greater Pittsburgh. This column is a service of the Vaad Harabanim of Greater Pittsburgh.

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