On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Acharei Mot II: The Boundaries of Innovation

Passover may have just ended, but it’s not too early to talk about Yom Kippur and second chances. This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs talks about making mistakes and the sometimes-negative consequences of innovation.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome to episode 15 of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah,” a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2,000 years of Jewish wisdom in just 10 minutes with modern day commentary on the weekly Torah portion. Of course, we think there are plenty of ways to interpret Torah, and we want to hear what you think. Talk to us on Twitter. Our handle is @URJ, Like us at Facebook.com/ReformJudaism, and subscribe to the podcast on iTunes.

This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, president of the Union for Reform Judaism, pushes us about innovation and if it has boundaries. And even though Pesach just passed, we'll hear about Yom Kippur and second chances.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we focus on Parashat Acharei Mot, in the book of Leviticus. Acharei Mot literally means after the death. The opening of the parashah repeats a story that we read several weeks ago in Parashat Sh’mini about Nadav and Avihu, two sons of the priest Aaron who died on the first day that they were serving the Jewish people after having been trained and consecrated to the sacred service. The narrative tells us that they, in offering the worship of our people, offered an eish zarah, an alien fire that had not been commanded, and they were immediately consumed in fire.

Now, I know that I remember vividly being a brand new, minted rabbi, five minutes after my ordination thinking, what would happen to me if I did something that wasn't commanded, or I did something that wasn't even what I knew? I made a mistake. Would I be zapped on the spot? What did it say that on the first day when you'd have to give new leaders a chance to find their way that they don't get a second chance? They are immediately consumed in fire.

So, our mephor’shim, our commentators through the ages, have spent a lot of time thinking about what is it that Nadav and Avihu actually did. What was this eish zarah? Some people expressed that they were so carried away they were literally intoxicated with the excitement and the passion and even the zealousness of their service of God. And it is a warning that there have to be parameters.

Another great commentator, Samson Rafael Hirsch, a wonderful 19th century Orthodox commentator, says that the eish zarah is actually an example of innovation. Something that we not only must be careful of, but we actually must limit our community from that kind of experimentation and innovation. He goes on in the course of his writing in the 19th century to speak about the innovators of that time, which really were the early Reform leaders in Germany.

And so, one could conclude that this is a Torah narrative forbidding innovation. I have to say, very clearly and very, very, very wholeheartedly, I think that would be exactly the wrong conclusion to make from this narrative. Nadav and Avihu did something that brought not just divine displeasure, but I have to believe that ability to innovate, to try, to experiment, to make more relevant, more meaningful is an impetus that comes from a very, very wonderful place of religious conviction. Only going by the tradition, only the established ways, is a recipe to literally weaken and make irrelevant in religious life.

So, as we read this story, we think about the innovations of today. How is it that we make Jewish spirituality both meaningful and engaging? How do we put passion into our spiritual practice? At the same time, how can we be respectful of the tradition? At the same time not be confined by it, not to feel as if it is a straight-jacket. And what is the excitement of being new in roles of leadership?

We are actually, I believe, obligated to experiment, to test, where are those boundaries of what is meaningful. And I believe also one of the primary questions raised in this narrative. So, what does it tell us about the Holy One? We know we have a tradition, and later in Parashat Acharei Mot, it talks about Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

We know on the Day of Atonement that we actually not only think about second chances, but we have a ritual. A whole day of reflection that allows us to heal the wrongs of our life. To be able to make whole again that which literally scarred us and scarred those around us. So, we want our God as God is imagined on Yom Kippur-- to be a God of compassion. A God of forgiveness. But we also know there is a mystery around holiness. It's not a world that we human beings understand so clearly.

So, whether we're a Jewish leader, a kohen, a rabbi, a lay leader, or just a seeker trying to find our way to a path of real, real spiritual depth in our lives, let's pay attention to the narrative of Nadav and Avihu. But let's not become frightened that we in our creativity and our innovation will always cross over that line. That is for us to carry forward that spark. That ability to try and to know in the course of doing where are those boundaries.

And I also would want us to hold the beauty of Yom Kippur expressed to us in Parashat Acharei Mot. That we have a tradition that says there are second chances, and even the harm that we cause, we have a process for healing called teshuva. It may seem odd to talk about Yom Kippur when we just finished celebrating Passover and we're preparing to celebrate Shavuot in a few weeks, but our holiday of Yom Kippur isn't only to say there's one day a year to make whole and to practice teshuva. It's part of our every day.

So, let's embrace those second chances and let's continue to not only study the Torah, but at times argue with the Torah. At times to really be overwhelmed and perplexed by a Torah narrative as we are in this narrative of Nadav and Avihu. Acharei Mot, after the death. Next week we come to Kedoshim. After the death there's new life, new hope, new possibility, new holiness.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah.” If you liked what you heard today, and we hope you did, you can find new episodes each week at ReformJudaism.org and on iTunes, where we would love for you to rate and review us. And you can visit ReformJudaism.org to learn more about all aspects of Judaism, including rituals, culture, holidays, and more. “On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah” is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

Until next week – l’hitraot!