Tzav - Fathers & Sons

In quantum theory, one of the most alluring (and misused) concepts is that of togetherness in separation, that two particles, once linked, continue to “track” each other even when no longer together, even when beyond the reach of the speed of light! These two particles will move in tandem, seeming to “know” each other’s as yet unfinished “choices”. This “non-locality” means that the two particles are entangled in each other’s futures, no matter how separate they may be spatially.
Togetherness in separation is very much alive in the relationships of many fathers and sons. Prior to the birth of the son, a male finds himself the dream and hopes of the would-be father. As the two grow to know each other, each projects expectations, requirements, love and identity on to the other. Given the complexity of all human relationships, it is no surprise that this most intimate of relationships is also among the most complex. The father defines manhood for the son. The son embodies the projection of the father into the future. One is the base of identity; the other offers immortality. In the potent mix of dependence and shared identity, real men battle out their distinct individuality, their shared manliness, and their abilities to relate to each other, other men, humanity, and the world.
Parashat Tzav opens a window onto this world of men – as we listen in to the instructions offered to male priests, the Kohanim, at the establishment of the sacrificial system in the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and later in the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. The lineage is a set up – a priesthood that begins with the house of Levi through the very first Kohen Gadol, Aaron, and continues through his sons. His male descendants inherit their kahunah (priesthood) from their fathers. It’s a living laboratory of dads and their boys, of sons and their old men, all working in the family business, all seeking to make their mark.
As our story begins, Aaron is ready for his close up – everything up til now has been to get to this moment, when he can take over the sacrifices that establish a connection between God and Israel, when his meticulous attention to detail can ensure blessing for the entire Jewish people. And at this big scene, does he get the solo he deserves? No. Time and time again, his big scene has interlopers:
“This is the ritual of the gain offering: Aaron’s sons shall present it before the Lord, in front of the altar … What is left of it shall be eaten by Aaron and his sons (Lv 6:7, 9).”
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: This is the offering that Aaron and his sons shall offer to the Lord on the occasion of his anointment (Lv 6:12).”
“The Lord spoke to Moses, saying: Speak to Aaron and his sons thus: This is the ritual of the purification offering (Lv 6: 17).”
And on, and on, and on. Instead of getting the spotlight all to himself, Aaron must share it with his sons and grandsons. Instead of a superstar, he comes across sounding like a law firm or a furniture store: Aaron & Sons.
Not only the key moments, but even the list of privileges associated with the priesthood are shared with the sons and grandsons: “Those shall be the perquisites of Aaron and the perquisites of his sons from the Lord’s gifts, once they have been inducted to serve the Lord as priests; these the Lord commanded to be given them, once they had been anointed, as a due from the Israelites for all time throughout the ages (Lv 7:35-36).”
For seven days in a row, Aaron & Sons are inducted into the priesthood: donning special robes and tunics, anointed with special oil, eating sacral meals and making inaugural sacrifices. Seven days of Aaron & Sons, with an eternity of service stretching ahead of them!
What must Aaron have thought, as his sons move to share the spotlight even at this first glowing moment? How do fathers across time welcome their sons into their lives, giving them a future, even as they realize that these younger men will succeed them? That these vibrant youths will radiate energy and strength when their own begins to recede? The Talmud notes poignantly, “The power of a son is preferable to the power of a father (Hullin 49b, Yevamot 69b).” What ambivalent emotions must that knowledge entail?
And what of Aaron’s sons? How do they take their father’s greater stature, expertise, and fame? As they scramble to make a name for themselves, must they always be the Sons of Aaron? Here too, the Talmud reminds us, “Concerning one’s father’s affairs, even an adult is like a minor (Ketubot 18a, Gittin 50a).” How that must have chafed!
The key to navigating this complex and promising stream is to embrace the multifaceted nature of the father-son connection. Rather than falsely settling on one end of the spectrum, while seeking to make the opposite end invisible, the Torah tradition offers a model of embracing the rich incompatibility of the different aspects of father-son connections.
The Talmud notes, for instance, “The Merciful One gave the father credibility in all things (Kiddushin 63b). Children are born naturally looking to their father’s to represent wisdom, maturity, generosity, and strength. And parents are programmed as well, to rejoice in the achievements of their children: “A person is jealous of everyone except for a child and a disciple (Sanhedrin 105b).” There is a reciprocity in our giving each other the benefit of the doubt, in celebrating each other’s greatness, in using that greatness as a stimulus to our own greater achievements.
Built into the structure of the father-son connection, like the directionality of time, is a forward motion, as love cascades unequally between the generations, from father to son, and then on again. In the sage words of Rav Huna, “A father’s love is for his children; the children’s love is for their children (Sotah 49a).” That is not to say that sons don’t love (even revere) their fathers, but that the intensity of emotion flows down across the generations, always favoring the newest and the youngest. The flow of male love embraces children. The periodic strains between fathers and sons can be reconciled in their shared love of the next generation.
That same transition across generations invites a renewed (and more sympathetic) assessment of fathers. As sons struggle to balance professional achievement, supporting their families, being there for colleagues and for spouse and children, sons gain a new understanding of the constrains in which their father’s struggled, new sympathy for the balancing act of being a man, a husband, and a father. Abraham Mendelssohn, son of the great philosopher Moses and father of the great composer, Felix, quipped, “Formerly I was my father’s son, now I am my son’s father.” As life moves forward, we experience, seriatim, being a grandfather’s grandson, a father’s son, a son’s father, and a grandsons’s grandfather. This cycle of love invites us to revisit the ways our own grandfather’s lavished love despite their own advancing years and financial concerns, the ways our fathers carved opportunities to share insight and caring, despite ongoing business and social pressures, and forewarns us that we won’t be more perfect in these tasks then were the men who came before us.
Armed with that awareness, perhaps it becomes possible for us to see what a privilege our time together is. Despite the ways that fathers and sons can sometimes compete, sometimes strain at the burdens of responsibility and the call of independence. We can use our hard-won empathy to look to our father’s as the most recent flow of love and devotion of all the men whose love welled up to launch us into life, and whose disciplines and cautions (and support and enthusiasm) made our own characters possible. As the Midrash reminds, “It is an honor for children and fathers to be with one another (Exodus Rabbah 34:5).”
Beyond honor, it is a terrifying joy to see one’s father in one’s own gestures, thoughts, expressions, and then to see oneself in one’s sons. Such continuity is a blessing of the deepest kind. Commenting on the biblical verse, “Blessed shall you be when you go out (Dt 28:3), the rabbis comment that this comes true when “your children will be like you (Bava Metzia 107a).”
When we can stand together, generations of caring men, strong in our love and resolute in our commitments, then we truly are a source of blessings to our progeny, our spouses, our communities. Such blessing requires real strength – not the coercive overwhelming so often mistaken for power, but the life-changing ability to influence, to educate, and to inspire, that is the special heritage that Jewish men can offer their children.
We see that, too, in Parashat Tzav. After Aaron & Sons launch the family business, the Torah portion ends with a quiet reassurance: “Aaron and his sons did all the things that the Lord had commanded through Moses (Lv 8:36).” Father and son united in service, devotion, and values.
Pretty potent blessing, isn’t it? Happy Father’s Day!

Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson (www.bradartson.com) is the Dean of the Ziegler School of Rabbinic Studies and Vice President of American Jewish University in Los Angeles. He is the author of 7 books, most recently Gift of Soul, Gift of Wisdom: A Spiritual Resource for Mentoring and Leadership (Behrman House) and Everyday Torah: Weekly Reflections and Inspirations (McGraw Hill).