Parshas Tzav: Lessons from the Small Mem

In this week’s parsha, Parshas Tzav, Hashem continues to command Moshe regarding the avodas ha’Mishkan (service performed in the Tabernacle), the korbanos (sacrificial offerings) and the appointment of Aharon and his sons as the kohanim who served in the Mishkan.  The pasuk tells us: צַ֤ו אֶֽת־אַהֲרֹן֙ וְאֶת־בָּנָ֣יו לֵאמֹ֔ר זֹ֥את תּוֹרַ֖ת הָעֹלָ֑ה הִ֣וא הָעֹלָ֡ה עַל֩ מוֹקְדָ֨הֿ עַל־הַמִּזְבֵּ֤חַ כׇּל־הַלַּ֙יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶר וְאֵ֥שׁ הַמִּזְבֵּ֖חַ תּ֥וּקַד בּֽוֹAnd Hashem spoke to Moshe saying: Command Aharon and his sons saying: this is the law of the elevation offering; it is the elevation offering that stays on the flame (מוֹקְדָ֨הֿ, mok’dah), on the altar, all night until the morning, and the fire of the altar shall burn with it (Vayikra 6:1-2).  

Tradition tells us that the first letter of the word מוֹקְדָ֨הֿ (the flame), is a “mem ze’eirah – a small mem.”  As nothing in the Torah is happenstance, and nothing is recorded without intent, what does the small ‘mem’ come to teach us?  

Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Bregman, in his Short and Sweet on the Parsha (Feldheim), writes, “The flame on the mizbe’ach is referred to as ‘mokda’ in this pasuk.  It’s interesting to note that if you look at this word in the Sefer Torah or inside the Chumash, the letter mem at the beginning of the word ‘mokda’ is written smaller than the other letters of the word.  Why?

“The Kotzker Rebbe zt’l (R’ Menachem Mendel Kotzk, 1787-1859, Poland) says that the word mokda is referring to the fire of enthusiasm.”  

However – this leads to a different question: we might think that if the mem is referring to enthusiasm for Torah and mitzvos, it should be written larger than all the other letters, and not smaller!  Why, then, is it diminished?  Answers the Kotzker, in his brilliant and perceptive fashion:

“The ‘mem’ is written small to indicate that inspiration is grossly overrated.  What truly matters is not how much inspiration you feel, but rather how much of it you are able to translate into tangible accomplishment!” (Short and Sweet on the Parsha, p.256).  

What a piercing and important insight this is.  Sure, it’s necessary to feel inspired as we live our lives as Jews.  It’s important to be excited for the mitzvos, for Torah and for the yomim tovim.  But if we only live inspired, and never translate that fire, passion, and inspiration into concrete action, into carrying out the precepts of Torah, into sitting down and making time for Torah study, into ensuring our heart leads to action… then all that inspiration is wasted and diminished.  Only if we learn in order to do, and feel the fire that leads to action, is the flame of avodas Hashem burning healthily within us.

Perhaps then, this is why ‘the flame’ has the diminished mem.  Fire can be healing, helpful, useful and productive, and fire can be dangerous, destructive and menacing R”L.  So too, our passions and emotions.  If they fuel healthy avodas Hashem, they are fires of greatness and productivity.  But if we never move past the passion, and do not turn our emotion into action, then the fire can be destructive and dangerous.  We cannot be complacent and fool ourselves into believing enthusiasm alone is sufficient.  It must be followed by doing and achieving in avodas Hashem!  

Furthermore, Rabbi Bregman writes, “Ta’am V’Da’as has a different approach.  He says that the mem is small in order to teach that one’s fire for avodas Hashem should not be unnaturally forced or expected to come all at once.  Instead, like the small mem at the beginning of the word ‘mokda,’ it is something that can begin small, and hopefully grow over time.  If our enthusiasm is allowed to grow naturally, we will discover that its flame will never be extinguished.  Instead, it will endure for a person’s whole lifetime, which is what the words towards the end of our pasuk promise us: כׇּל־הַלַּ֙יְלָה֙ עַד־הַבֹּ֔קֶרall night, until the morning” (Short and Sweet on the Parsha, p.256-257).  

Here too is a most important and relevant insight.  When we approach any area of avodas Hashem, particularly when it comes to a new area which we want to work on, or improve in, we must know the importance and reality of ‘baby steps’.  True and everlasting growth and change doesn’t happen in one enormous leap, or in one proverbial ‘huge flame’ of passion.  Small commitments over time will ultimately grow into larger, everlasting commitments through one’s lifetime.  If we start small, but make sure the fire keeps burning, ultimately, the fire will never be extinguished.

A certain talmid chacham came to the Chazon Ish one erev Yom Kippur (Y”K) and he said, “Every year on Y”K I make all of the preparations to do teshuva, and I manage to think some thoughts of teshuvah.  But what is all this worth if right after Y”K I revert back to my old habits?”  Replied the Chazon Ish, “Thoughts of teshuva are also very precious to Hashem!”

Similarly, a certain chassid once came to R’ Shalom Noach Berezovsky of Slonim (1911-2000), the Nesivos Shalom.  This chassid had enormous potential and great aspirations, but his life was one long string of disappointments.  He had not managed to turn his aspirations into reality and achieve meaningful spiritual growth.  “I am worried,” the chassid told the Rebbe, “that nothing will come of any of my dreams and aspirations, and my tombstone will read, ‘Here lies a man of aspirations.’”  “If I would see a grave like that,” replied the Rebbe, “I would go to pray at that grave.  Do you think it’s such a simple thing to be a man of aspirations?” (Aleinu L’Shabei’ach Vayikra, p.379-380)

May we always have the enthusiasm, passion, and fire of inspiration and aspirations, may we be courageous enough to turn enthusiasm into action, and may we always live our lives so that the flame within continues to burn ever brighter and for eternity.

בברכת בשורות טובות ,פורים שמח, ושבת שלום,


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