On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Tzav: What Are We Obligated to Do?

What are we actually obligated to do? What is imposed and what do we choose? Rabbi Rick Jacobs explores Parashat Tzav

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Welcome to episode nine of On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah, a podcast presented by reformjudaism.org. Each week, we reflect on more than 2000 years of Jewish wisdom in just ten 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, explores Parashat Tzav from the Book of Leviticus, asking, what are we actually obligated to do? What is imposed, what is commanded, and what do we choose?

The Torah portion we study this week is Parashat Tzav. And the Hebrew root in Tzav is the same root as in mitzvah-- commandment, obligation. As non-orthodox-- as liberal Jews, that's a very big, challenging category for us. What really are the obligations? Not the good things we might do. What are the things that we are really obligated to do?

The Jewish tradition traditionally has a very long list of things that we are obligated to do in areas of ritual, ethics, in terms of social justice, in areas of personal morality. So during this week when we think about Parashat Tzav, which, in the Torah, is all about the commandments that the ancient priests would fulfill on behalf of the people having to do with sacrificial offerings in the ancient temple, it's a chance for us, maybe, to think a little bit about what are the obligations in our own liberal Jewish lives?

So I think about the big question that, for many people, areas of religious obligation are fuzzy. But personal obligation-- let's say, for example, my daughter tells me that next week, she's in a play. And she asks if I'm coming. Well on one level, you can say, that's an option. We can choose to come or not come. But by virtue of that relationship, is there really a doubt whether I'm obligated to be there? Relationships can obligate us by virtue of our commitment to others. So when I walk down the street in New York City, and there's a homeless person sitting there, am I obligated to do something? Is it because the Jewish tradition speaks in the language of commandment that I need to respond and reach out and offer food or financial support to that individual? I am surely obligated. I'm obligated by the gaze of that person.

The Jewish philosopher, Emmanuel Levinas, said that we are obligated by looking into the eye of the other. And in that encounter, we see another human being, also created the image of God, sometimes in a moment of strength, but sometimes in a moment of need. So I'd like to think about the place of obligation for us in our lives. And for non-Orthodox Jews, a lot times for us, ritual is completely open to interpretation and choice. Morality we put in a different category.

But the whole question of how is it that we live a life of religious depth and purpose, and how do we act with discipline in our religious life, whether it's our practice of personal prayer or meditation, or Shabbat, or holidays. What are the things that we commit to, and how do they help us live a life of greater clarity, depth, morality, and goodness?

So Parashat Tzav, you must do. And in our normal, modern, Western moral discourse, “you shall” is a little bit hard for us to hear. The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that that is a heteronomous obligation, one that's imposed. But the one that comes from within us, the obligation that we fulfill because we feel it and we know it, those are the things that we do with all of our heart and strength.

So I think about our obligation to learn and to study. Is it an obligation? Is it a suggestion? No, it is an encounter. And sometimes it's with our study partner that we feel that obligation. My partner says, “Are you going to be there tomorrow at nine o'clock? We're going to study masechet brachot.” And that relationship with my study partner, with my friend, and with the text, and with the rabbis of antiquity, those relationships bind us. They bind us to one another, and they obligate us.

So as we study Parashat Tzav this week, I hope we'll reopen the whole question of what are we obligated to do, and what are the fruits of those obligations? What are the ways that they enhance our very lives? And thinking about whether it's a child in a school play or a person that we encounter on the street, how is it that the gaze of the other obligates us today, tomorrow, and every day?

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