On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Following Their Lead - Parashat Tzav

Jewish wisdom says a child’s Torah education should start with the Book of Leviticus. As we read its second portion, Parashat Tzav, we share an episode that first ran in 2018, just after a school shooting in Parkland, FL, killed 17 people and injured 17 more. Rabbi Rick Jacobs stresses the importance of fighting for and with our young people, raising up the Jewish teens who, amid tragedy, mobilized for gun violence prevention.

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the president of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the Torah portion in just about 10 minutes or less.

But for the first time in four years, this podcast is going to go on a little bit of a hiatus as we work on some new and exciting ideas for its future. But in the meantime, we're re-airing some of the best episodes of years past-- our greatest hits, if you will. This week, we're throwing it back to March 19, 2018, Parashat Tzav, when Rabbi Rick Jacobs talks about gun violence prevention and what we really need to be doing to move that forward.

[Rabbi RIck Jacobs] This week we focus our attention on Parashat Tzav, the second Torah portion of the book of Leviticus. The opening of Tzav, we have the commandment that says, "the eternal spoke to Moses, saying, command Aaron and his sons." We would, of course, say, his children. But in the day until this day, the actual priests in the Jewish tradition are the sons. It goes through the male line.

What is amazing is that, in the opening of the portion, which builds on last week's portion, it was all about the ritual details of sacrifice-- what you do, and what it accomplishes, and the strict way in which sacrifices are offered, mostly animal sacrifices brought onto an altar. And some are consumed entirely in smoke and flames. Others are grain offerings. Some are eaten by the priest. Some are shared with the one who brings the offering.

What's pretty much the focus of Tzav is to really focus in on the priests, how their role is to be accomplished. And amazingly, it says in the midrash that you start a little child's education with the book of Leviticus. On one level, it's a scary thought. Just imagine a little person in your life, a little four- or five-year-old, innocent, curious, and you start telling them about the ritual slaughter of animals, blood all over the altar. I don't know about you, but I don't think it would always go so well.

But here's the midrash explaining why you should start little children with the book of Leviticus. Rav Assi said, why do young children begin with the study of Torah when they're young with Leviticus and not Genesis? He says, "Surely it's because young children are pure, and the sacrifices are pure. Let the pure come and engage in the study of the pure."

So it's a beautiful, beautiful, sweet teaching. But I don't think it captures it. So I actually probed a little bit more. Turns out that you didn't start your work as a priest until you were 20 years old. It means they didn't have teens leading in the rituals of our ancestors.

I have to be really honest. I've been watching-- in fact, all of us have been watching-- as teens have been leading not just the Jewish community-- they've been leading the whole darn world. And they've been leading it around particularly the students of Parkland, Florida, who experienced personally the slaughter of 17 of their community members in that high school.

And though the response was not, oh, my, this is horrific or thoughts and prayers. The response is we're going to do something about this. So you have this remarkable set of leaders, teen leaders, who step up and speak out.

One remarkable such leader is a freshman at Vanderbilt, and her name is Abby Brafman. And she gave the most unbelievable talk a couple of weeks ago at the Women of Reform Judaism's Free Leadership Conference. She said, and I'm going just going to quote her, because she was so unbelievably passionate. She said, "I don't want to ever hear Columbine, Sandy Hook, Parkland, Florida. It's not going to be a name that's rattled off. It's going to be, that was the city that changed America."

This young leader, who went to that high school, whose friends were in the high school when the shooting took place, she made it clear to her colleagues and friends at Vanderbilt that in Nashville, Tennessee, there was going to be a march. And they were going to turn apathy into action-- remarkable.

You also have some other pretty incredible leaders. I'm going to single out Zoe Turner, Social Action Vice President of NFTY Southern Tropical Region. She articulates what it was like to be on the bus a couple of days after the shooting when they went up to Tallahassee, Florida, to meet with their elected representatives, and to speak their truth, and to change the way folks were treating them, and responding to their horrific predicament.

So she tells a number of stories. One story is about a state senator who forgot about the meeting and invited them to come and make a presentation. Well, here's one particular encounter they had with State Senator René García. So they were pleading with her-- pleading, you just have to enact new legislation to reduce gun violence.

And she said the following. She said, listen, I don't believe that banning assault weapons is the solution. They're just going to change the name and sell them in some other way.

"If I may, Senator," Zoe asked, interrupting, "there's a saying in Judaism. You're not obligated to complete the work but neither are you free to desist from it. It's true that this piece of legislation isn't a total solution. And it's true that we have so much work left to do. But, Senator, this is a step. This is a beginning. We're determined to do something, anything that will save just one life. And then we'll keep going until we have saved them all."

At the end of our meeting, Senator García told us, I will be your voice. Wow, that is powerful leadership. And Zoe Turner is also going to be the incoming Social Action Vice President of all of NFTY. And we are so waiting for her leadership to grow on this North American continent.

I don't know about you, but I find this unbelievably compelling that these young leaders-- not priests, not Levites, leaders in the most compelling way-- have stepped up and raised the awareness, the consciousness, and even the ability to change laws and policy.

My last thought is, for every Torah portion, there's a haftarah. There's a section from the prophets. Well, the section for Parashat Tzav is not the opening of the book of Isaiah. But it is the haftarah that we read in the beginning of the book of Deuteronomy. It's so powerful.

As we're immersed in the ritual details of the ancient sacrificial cult, Isaiah says the following. "What need have I have of all your sacrifices?" says God. "I'm sated with burnt offerings of rams and suet of fatlings and the blood of bulls. And I have no delight in lambs and he-goats that come to appear before me."

And then God, through the prophet, says, "I don't want your sacrifices. I don't need them." And then, in verse 15 of chapter 1 of Isaiah, we have this. "And when you lift up your hands in a gesture of prayer, I will turn my eyes away from you. Though you pray at length, I'm not going to listen. Your hands are stained with blood. Wash yourselves clean. Put your evil doings away from my sight. Cease to do evil. Learn to do good. Devote yourselves to justice. Aid the wrong. Uphold the rights of the orphan. Defend the cause of the widow."

Isaiah is saying what these young leaders are saying, which is it's not about the rituals themselves. Rituals are supposed to catapult us to action. They're supposed to lead us to work harder, more effectively. Prayer isn't a refuge where we hide from the world. It's where we gain our strength so we can go out into the world and change it.

And we have so many examples in our long history as Jews of who those people are. And today those people are our teen leaders, our NFTY leaders. And the NFTY leaders who now are in college. And they're going to gather for March for Our Lives in 400 locations all across North America.

So if you're listening to the podcast, and you're saying, oh, really? There's one nearby? I don't have to just go to DC, or New York, or Chicago, or Boston? Maybe there's one in my neighborhood. Yeah, with 400, there's probably one in your neighborhood.

Now, you may not be a teen, and you're listening to this podcast. But maybe we should all be there. I'm going to be at the gathering in Los Angeles. We need to go there because the prophet Isaiah told us we have a job to do. We have holy work to do. We have justice to establish in our communities. And we are going to be led in this most dramatically and effectively by our teen leaders.

Last point, from the opening of Tzav-- it says, remarkably, that when you light the fire on the altar that you can't let it go out. It ends by saying, [SPEAKING HEBREW] And the fire of the altar shall burn within it, either the altar or within the priest.

I got to tell you, there's a fire burning. And that fire is burning within our young people. And the fire is going to keep them from letting the status quo swallow up their change effort. We must do something. We cannot let our high schools be places of slaughter. And we cannot plead that it's just too complicated. It's just not to try and change our society's attitude towards gun violence.

But listen to Zoe. Listen to Abby. Listen to maybe someone who lives in your house or is part of your circle. Let's listen. Let's heed the lessons, because the book of Leviticus is for our youngest leaders. And they don't just have to be priests and Levites. But boy, are they burning with a fire. And that fire is going to awaken, and it's going to change our world.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand-- Ten Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday an Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend.

For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org. And follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. 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. And until next week, [HEBREW].