Ask not ‘What’s in it for me?’

Ask not ‘What’s in it for me?’

Tzav | Leviticus 6:1-8:36

In last week’s parsha, Vayikra, we read about the types of korbanot, sacrifices. The people are told about the occasions and manner of offering the different sacrifices. In Tzav, the list of korbanot is repeated in the form of a priests’ manual telling the kohanim how they were to perform their tasks.

At the very beginning, the language catches the attention of the commentators. The parsha begins, “And God spoke to Moses, saying: Command [tzav] Aaron…” The word “tzav” is unusual. In most cases Moses is told, “dabeir” (speak) or “emor” (say). So why here is he told to “command” Aaron about the korbanot?

Rashi says it indicates encouragement or urging one on. But again, why should Aaron require special encouragement to perform the role for which he had been chosen? Rashi also quotes the Sifra, an early rabbinic commentary on Leviticus: “Rabbi Shimon said, ‘Even more so must the Torah encourage in a case where there are out-of-pocket expenses.’”

So how does offering korbanot cause Aaron to incur expenses? There are several explanations. The Maharal (Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel, 1525-1609, Prague) suggests that in order to perform the sacrificial service, the kohanim would have to give up their regular means of earning a livelihood (i.e., they could not also be farmers or merchants). This was particularly an issue in connection with the olah, the wholly burnt offering, to which the verse refers, because the kohanim would not receive a portion of the meat. The kohen did receive the hide, but this would not make up for the forgone income.

Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nachman, 1194-1270, Spain) connects the financial loss with the requirement that every kohen had to bring a grain offering on the first day of his service rotation and that the kohen gadol (the high priest, Aaron) had to bring such an offering every day.

But whatever the specific reason for Rabbi Shimon’s comment, the rabbis seem to have thought that Aaron might be reluctant to perform his tasks when he added up the out-of-pocket expenses and so would need specific and emphatic encouragement.

I suppose it’s a good thing to know that people measuring the world in terms of “What’s in it for me?” is not just a modern phenomenon. But the fact that looking out for number one is apparently part of human nature doesn’t mean it’s necessarily a good thing.

Here’s a letter that appeared in Ann Landers’s advice column a number of years ago:

“I would like to respond to ‘St. Louis Wife,’ whose 52-year-old husband lost his job. My husband, ‘Ed,’ was laid off when he was 59. Although he applied and followed many job leads, nothing came of them.

“Ed started volunteering at one of the local elementary schools two mornings a week and discovered that he enjoyed working with children. Since he had a bachelor’s degree, he was able to be accredited as a substitute teacher. He then took additional classes so he could be certified full-time. Now, at the age of 70, Ed is in his fifth year as a master teacher and has tenure.

“His previous work experience as an executive has been a great asset in his current career. The staff, students, and parents all respect and like him. Most importantly, he is happier as a teacher than he was as an executive. Please tell ‘St. Louis Wife’ not to give up. Good things can happen when you least expect them.”

Sometimes, the best things find you when you’re not even looking — but, if you go around focused on “What’s in it for me?” they just might pass you by.

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