It's Not Just the Thought That Counts by Josh Schwartz


In the opening line of Parashat Tzav, the Torah states, “Tzav Et Aharon VeEt Banav Leimor,” “Command Aharon and his sons saying,” and proceeds to give instructions regarding the Korban Olah. Chazal (Kiddushin 29a), as quoted by Rashi in Tzav, jump on the uncommon word for which the Sidrah is named, Tzav, found a total of eight times in the Torah and two more in the rest of Tanach. They explain that when the emphatic ‘Tzav’ is used rather than the more common ‘Dabeir’ or ‘Emor,’ it indicates three unique aspects to the subsequent command: a sense of urgency, that the matter must be carried out immediately, and that it must also be executed by future generations. In the Parashah of the Olah, the word ‘Tzav’ is used to call the Kohanim to action, despite the fact that they suffer a significant financial loss. Unlike many other services, they do not receive substantial payment for their role in the sacrifice of a Korban Olah. (With other animal Korbanot, the Kohanim are endowed the meat and the hides, but when a person brings an Olah, it robs him of the meat and leaves him a pittance in the hide.) The Kohanim rely on the Korbanot to sustain them since this is their only job, so the Torah makes this command in the context of Olah since the loss of income is severe.

This explains the urgency and the call for immediate performance, but what about the special command directed to future generations? Does the Torah assume that the implementation of the Korban Olah will decline over time? Does it suspect that future generations will be more lax in their observance? Is there something different about future generations’ perspective of the Olah? And if the commandment of the Korban Olah is strongly directed to future generations, how is this directive relevant to us today?

The answer to this question is one of the Torah’s critical core beliefs. A person should not disregard the primary function of a commandment and focus instead on the secondary subordinate functions. When a person brings his Korban, it is the intentions of his heart and his overwhelming desire to purify himself that is the impetus of the concept of Korban. Hashem obviously is not interested in animals or birds or meal-offerings or incense being burnt for Him; rather, it is the Kavanah that goes into it that is the primary focus: It is the thought that counts. This was Kayin’s mistake when he offered Hashem a sacrifice without proper thought. Similarly, Shmuel’s rebuke of Shaul for leaving the herds of cattle and sheep belonging to Amaleik centered on this idea: “Hachafeitz LaShem BeOlot UZevachim KiShmo’a Bekol Hashem?” “Does Hashem delight in Olot-offerings and feast-offerings as in obedience to the voice of Hashem?” (I Shmuel 15:22). This important concept continues to be misunderstood by many people who have completely different perspectives on Divine service and believe that our physical gifts are desired. The people of the first Beit Hamikdash brought many Korbanot but they were missing the essential prerequisite of Kavanat HaLeiv. They thought that as long as they were doing their job giving their animals, nothing bad could happen to them or the Beit Hamikdash.

The underlying concept of Korbanot that Kavanah is the impetus of our actions is exemplified by the statement of Chazal that all material pleasures enjoyed by the wicked illegitimately can be attained by Tzaddikim legitimately. Similarly, the story of Rabi Chiya Bar Abba (Kiddushin 81b) demonstrates that Kavanah trumps all. One day, his wife decided to test him.  She disguised herself as a prostitute and requested Rabi Chiya to bring her a pomegranate on a high-hanging branch. He jumped up and got it for her, and upon returning home, proceeded to fast for the rest of his life even though his wife revealed to him that he had done nothing wrong. Rabi Chiya Bar Abba’s understood that Kavanah cannot be overlooked and it is far more powerful than actions devoid of intent.

Of course, the idea that thought counts more than actions is subject to horrible abuse. During the time of the second Beit Hamikdash, Bnei Yisrael were guilty of such exploitation. They decided that if their Kavanah was important, why bother with the Korbanot? The Nevi’im exhorted them this time, saying, “When you present a blind animal for sacrifice, is nothing wrong? And when you present a lame or sick [animal], is nothing wrong? Present it, if you please, to your governor: Would he be pleased with you or show you favor?” (Mal’achi 1:8). Having a good heart, as we’ve seen, is very important, but action is also necessary. Even if a person is able to achieve the ultimate level of Kavanah, it does not replace the actual Korban. A person must do both: Offer Hashem a Korban with the best of his means and with proper Kavanah.

Now we can fully understand why the commandment was directed to future generations. Eventually, people of the second Beit Hamikdash would ask why they should bring a Korban if their Kavanah was all that was needed to make it look like they cared. But what about today? People are masters at rationalizing and look for ways to circumvent spending time, energy, and money for spiritual objectives. We say things like, “If I have the right Kavanah, it’s not important to spend time articulating the words clearly,” or, “Giving him a friendly greeting is just as good as giving him monetary support.” These are all things which the Torah conveys the urgency to fix from the word “Tzav.” The message of this word is relevant in our daily lives as we juggle action and Kavanah.

Observations on Esther Perek 1 by Aryeh Kirscher and Zvi Kaminetzky

Our Inner Animal by Alex Russell