March 28, 2012
Rabbi H. Greenberg in #829, Parsha Thought, Pesach, Tzav

Exile conditions generate negative and pessimistic thoughts. We cannot allow such thoughts to remain unchecked; otherwise, they can harm us in three ways…


This week’s parsha begins with G-d telling Moses to command Aaron and his sons concerning the manner in which an olah, a “burnt offering,” was to be offered in the Temple. “Command Aaron and his sons, saying, ‘This is the law of the burnt offering. It is the burnt offering that may burn on the Altar all night until morning. The Altar’s fire shall burn with it.’”

A question has been raised as to why the Torah uses the more imperative word “command” instead of the more common and more passive expression of “speak” or “say.” Why did Aaron have to be commanded? Wasn’t G-d’s request of him to do something enough for him to have fulfilled G-d’s will? Indeed, even a slight hint would have sufficed for Aaron!

Rashi, noting this question, provides three explanations:

“The expression tzav-command always denotes urging on for the present and also for future generations.” In other words, when the term “command” is used it suggests immediacy. This is a command that a) may not be delayed, and b) should be imparted to future generations as well.

If the Torah would have used a less assertive expression it could have been construed that it was not quite so urgent and its implementation might be delayed.

Furthermore, though Aaron did not have to be told in such strong terms to fulfill this obligation, his descendants might have treated it less seriously. By commanding Aaron, G-d was thinking about the future generations who might need more prodding.

Rashi then provides a third interpretation in the name of Rabbi Shimon:

“Scripture needs especially to urge a person to do a Mitzvah when it involves a severe financial loss” (literally: “A lacking wallet or pouch.”) Commentators explain that the regular offerings in the Temple were very costly. The prohibitive cost of these offerings might have caused Aaron and his sons to be lax in bringing them. The Torah thus employs the word “command” to ensure that the integrity of this offering would not be compromised.

The simple understanding of this concern is that, subconsciously, even a person of high spiritual stature who is not interested in accumulating money might, nevertheless, cut corners in the execution of his duties in order to save some money.


A question still remains. Why does the Torah choose to impart these lessons specifically in the context of the olah-the burnt offering? After all, there are many other offerings and observances that can be quite costly. The fact that the Torah chose to make this admonition with respect to the burnt offering is instructive.

There is another deeper explanation of the three reasons as to why Aaron had to be commanded that relates to the spiritual nature of the burnt offering.

A burnt offering, our Sages tell us (Midrash Tanchuma), was to atone for improper thoughts.

The reason improper thoughts need atonement can be understood on three levels:

First, the thought itself, though appearing harmless, is deleterious to the soul. Of the three “garments” of our soul, thought, speech and action, thought is the closest to our soul.

And, in some respects, improper thoughts can cause more damage to the soul than improper speech and/or action.

Second, an improper thought may be a symptom of a diseased soul that is in dire need of refinement. And even if the thought itself appears harmless, it can be an indicator of a decadent inner personality. It may be a telltale sign of some deep rooted decay that must be cleansed and perhaps uprooted before it can spread and corrupt the person entirely.

Third, a negative thought is like a soul without a body. And the nature of a soul is to find a body within which it can express itself. A writer has to express his or her thoughts in writing. An artist needs to draw, and an inventor has to invent. Creative people—people who are into thinking—need to express themselves. When a person harbors positive thoughts he/she seeks ways of expressing those thoughts in positive speech and action, giving the soul of their thoughts a body. Conversely, a negative thought seeks and usually finds a way of expressing itself in ways which lead to negative speech and action.

We can now understand the three approaches as to why there was a need to command Aaron concerning this offering specifically.


When a person harbors a negative thought, he/she thinks that they have all the time in the world to deal with it. After all, the thought will not harm anyone. Why rush into bringing this offering that deals specifically with eradicating negative thoughts?

The answer to this challenge is that there is a need to rush because the negative thought is not innocuous. It’s “rubbing” against the soul and causing damage to it. And since the damage can be severe, immediate attention is needed and a sense of urgency must therefore be communicated to the people.

However, one could argue that this is true for someone whose soul is extremely sensitive and pure. Like expensive silk, any contact with something coarse can damage the delicate nature of the fabric. Not so, one will argue, if one’s soul is far from such holiness. A little scratch or dirt on a crude animal skin will do it no harm. Aaron was an example of a silken soul. Perhaps he needed to be exhorted about the offering that removes the blemish caused by an improper thought, but his children wouldn’t necessarily need it as urgently.

The answer to this challenge is that, while it may be true that the stain caused by the negative thought is not as serious for someone with a less radiant soul, one must still feel the urgency to remove that blemish. And this urgency is for precisely the reason they think they don’t need to deal with it. The reason why the thought is considered not to be a major problem is because their souls are unrefined. That is why they harbor these negative thoughts. Therefore, it is crucial to remedy the situation by getting to the root of the problem and bringing refinement to one’s soul. Without treatment of the core problem, the person’s inner decay can totally destroy them.

Less refined people are even in greater need of atoning for their thoughts. It is like the person who develops external lesions that can be a sign that there is a malignancy beneath the surface. While the lesion itself will not harm them, the underlying cause of it left untreated can.

And then there is a third reason, Rabbi Shimon’s, as to why urgent language must be used to inspire conscientiousness in dealing with negative thoughts.

Rabbi Shimon’s thesis translated literally yields the following:

“Scripture needs especially to urge a person when there is a lack of a kis (pouch or wallet, implying financial loss).” This has been understood, as noted above, to refer to a person who will have to incur great expense to perform a Mitzvah and he needs an extra boost not to skimp or delay its performance. A deeper explanation is that, as mentioned above, a detached thought is like a soul that seeks a body, a receptacle, a pouch, a way to express itself in a tangible way.

Rabbi Shimon disabuses us of the notion that we cannot be affected by negative thoughts because they are only thoughts, and as long as our actions are pure and holy we are safe. If you don’t bring this offering that changes the way you think and which elevates your thought process (the word for burnt offering is olah which means elevation), it will cause your thoughts to materialize in the world of action as well. Thus, whenever there is a lack of a body—when a bodiless thought hovers in our mind—we must bring this offering that cleanses and refines our thought processes.


Rabbi Shimon, the author of the classic Kabbala work called the Zohar, epitomized the idea of not neglecting our soul. True, Judaism places the greatest emphasis on action, but it does so without neglecting to deal with our inner thoughts and mindset.

Rabbi Shimon’s teaching here—that has been applied to negative thoughts—is also operative with regard to positive ones. We must not be content with the body of Judaism; we must infuse it also with soul, with holy thoughts. And the means to achieve this refinement of our thoughts is through Rabbi Shimon’s teachings of Kabbala, especially as they have been articulated and made accessible to everyone through the teachings of Chassidus, the soul of Torah.


Exile conditions generate negative and pessimistic thoughts. We cannot allow such thoughts to remain unchecked; otherwise, they can harm us in three ways:

First, an exile thought and mindset causes damage to our soul. Second, it is a sign that our soul is ailing and needs immediate attention. Third, it leads to exile-tainted speech and action as well.

Conversely, when we fill our minds with positive and holy thoughts, if we try to think in spiritually sophisticated ways, we cleanse our soul and, most importantly, our soul then seeks expression in the physical world as well. The good thoughts bring good results. Thinking in a Moshiach and Redemption oriented fashion is the instrument that makes it a reality.


The above analysis of the power of thought can explain the significance of Shabbos HaGadol – the Great Shabbat – the Shabbat that precedes Passover. Many explanations have been given for the designation of this Shabbat as the Great Shabbat. One way of explaining it is that Passover is a Holiday of the liberation of speech and action. The Arizal states that the word Pesach actually means “a mouth that speaks.” On Passover we experience the liberation of our speech and we are physically liberated from bondage as well.

That is the “body” of Passover.

But before we acquire the body of Passover—the physical aspect of it—we preface it with its soul. Shabbat HaGadol is the soul of Redemption. It is the day which introduces us to a mature way of thinking (which is the definition of the word gadol), that takes us out of our immature galus mentality. And this becomes the catalyst to liberate our speech and our actions with the ultimate Redemption. May we celebrate this Passover—the freedom of all of our faculties—with Moshiach in the Third Beis HaMikdash!


Article originally appeared on Beis Moshiach Magazine (
See website for complete article licensing information.