On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah - Vayikra: Balancing Innovation and Tradition

How can we be religious innovators, keeping the essence of tradition, but remembering how far we can go?  Learn about these themes in Vayikra with Rabbi Rick Jacobs.

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[URJ Intro:] Welcome to episode eight of “On the Other Hand: 10 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 through a 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 Reformed Judaism, teaches us about Parashat Vayikra from the Book of Leviticus, asking, how can we be religious innovators, keeping the essence of tradition, but remembering how far we can go?

[Rabbi Rick:] This week, we begin a new book of the Torah. Not just a weekly portion, but a new book, Vayikra. In English, Leviticus. In Hebrew, vayikra, and God called. God called to Moses, but maybe God called to each of us.

The Book of Leviticus begins with some really challenging sections about animal sacrifice and the offering up on the altar prayers to God, hopes and dreams, sometimes guilt and shame. How is it that our ancestors conducted their spiritual lives in comparison to how we might offer our own prayers, our own way of healing wrongs, our own way of expressing joy and thanks-giving in our lives. It is a remarkable section, and it goes into very, very intimate details about the type of animal and the way in which the animal is offered or slaughtered, sometimes burnt, sometimes not, sometimes shared with just the priest, and sometimes shared with everyone.

I think of why is it that we study this portion millennia after the last sacrifice was offered? And of course, our tradition always has wisdom for us. And the actual teaching in the ancient Midrash is that when you're teaching young people, you don't start with the beginning of the Torah. You don't start with Genesis or Exodus, you start with Leviticus.

And on one level you say, that doesn't sound like a great idea. I mean, you're starting with a section that's all about sometimes the bloody and very difficult, and probably imagine very, very colorful and at times awesome ritual, but little kids, that doesn't sound like a good place to start. I think the power of our tradition in honestly asking us to read and reread this section, in fact, to make sure that our children read and reread it is to actually notice how far we've come, that we are a tradition that doesn't ask us to freeze what the religious life is all about.

It's too easy for faith traditions to get stuck. This is how we've done it. This is how we will always do it.

Our Jewish tradition, not just our modern tradition, has always been evolving and changing, adapting to new realities. It's not just the most liberal or progressive expressions of Judaism. That is the Jewish tradition in its essence.

So, as we read these narratives, we have to translate. We don't just have to think about how it was for them, but how will it be for us? What will we offer up? What will we bring?

They were asked to bring the best that they had. Not some animal that didn't mean something to them, not some grain that was very imperfect, but to bring the best that they had and to offer it up as an expression of their love, an expression of their regret and their remorse, an expression of their joy and thanks-giving. So, we don't find ourselves trapped in what was, but we translate. And we've watched the evolution of our tradition.

And for many of us, we're wondering where our tradition will go. What are the ways in which we will keep it alive and not simply inherit the ways in which our prayer book has spoken, and the way that our music sometimes captures or doesn't capture the spirit of what we search for. But as I look around the world, I'm most troubled that so many faith traditions seem to get stuck and not be willing to change, and not accepting change as holy, and as healthy, and is incredibly important. So, I love our Jewish traditions so much that I love to watch it grow and develop, that we can see the echoes of once what we did in ancient times. But what we were yesterday or last century or three millennia ago is not only who we are today.

So, I ask us, let's be the religious innovators that our ancient sages were. Let's be the people that have the courage and the imagination the creativity to take these building blocks of tradition and keep the essence, to find new forms, new ways to let it live, to let it sing, and to let it enhance and enrich and make wholly our own lives.

So, Vayikra, we begin, we're called to do this holy work, we called to be authentic exemplars of these noble values, of humility, of goodness, of caring, and working for the collective good. We're also told don't only do what was. So, we read Vayikra to remind us of how far we've come and how far we've yet to go.

[URJ Outro:] Thanks for joining us for this week's episode of “On the Other Hand: 10 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: 10 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!