On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah -- Vayikra: The Laws of Leviticus, Choice, and A.J. Jacobs, the Gratitude Expert

This parashah introduces many laws and rituals that might seem irrelevant to our modern lives, but what do these laws teach us? How do we bring them into our lives? A.J. Jacobs, acclaimed author of The Year of Living Biblically and Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey joins Rabbi Rick Jacobs to discuss the roles of laws, rituals, and gratitude in our lives.

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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 about 10 minutes or less. Some weeks he has a special guest, and this is one of those weeks. Rabbi Jacobs is joined remotely by A.J. Jacobs, the author of "The Year of Living Biblically: One Man's Humble Quest to Follow the Bible as Literally As Possible," and other books including "Thanks a Thousand: A Gratitude Journey." And that's just what they talk about -- the Bible and gratitude.

[Rabbi Rick:] This week we focus our attention on Parashat Vayikra, the first Torah portion in the Book of Leviticus. We begin there for a new book this week, and the Book of Leviticus is oftentimes that book that people kind of say, "oh my goodness, what are we to make sense of here? There's description of an ancient ritual that doesn't really describe what we do today." Ancient ritual that included animal sacrifices for sin, for guilt, for thanks-giving. And our whole notion of prayer is quite evolved, and yet we get in this week's parashah something very elemental about human experience. Which leads me to introduce a remarkable guest that we have on the podcast this week. His name is A.J. Jacobs. We're not related -- at least not that we know of, although I would be very thrilled to be a cousin or someone in A.J. Jacobs' family. You may know him as this brilliant author, he's written a number of books that are I think not only quite powerful, but really unique in how they approach the world we're living in. I want to particularly give a shout out to his "Year of Living Biblically," where A.J. spent an entire year living as a Biblical Jew, following the instructions and the obligations set forth in the Bible and all the challenges and, frankly, all the learning that comes with that. And he's the author of a new book on gratitude, which also is amazing -- that expressing gratitude could really reshape, kind of our, not only our personality, but the way we live in the world and the way people respond to us. These are, by the way, two things that I'd love to use as lenses to see this week's parashah. So, A.J. Jacobs welcome to the podcast.

[A.J. Jacobs] Thank you, Rabbi Jacobs. And by the way, you were mentioning that you don't think we're cousins, but we most certainly are. I wrote a book a couple of years ago on how everyone on earth is related. And as you might know, Jews are especially closely related, and it depends which geneticists you talk to, but somewhere around 7th or 8th cousin is the average for two Ashkenazi Jews.

[Rabbi Rick:] Oh, fantastic! All right. So, I'm glad to have my cousin A.J. Jacobs on the podcast today. Can I start, A.J., by asking you -- and you just immerse yourself, in your prior book, in the reality of the Biblical texts. I don't think you, on a daily basis, slaughtered lambs and rams and covered the altar with blood. So there had to have been some adaptation. But as you live as you lived that year, what sense did you make out of so much of what Leviticus is focused on and what do you think some of the enduring teachings that we could draw from them?

[A.J. Jacobs] Right. I was, as you say, trying to follow all of the all 613 rules, including the sacrificing of sheep, goats, and turtle doves -- but that was a tough one, that Leviticus really is the biggest challenge to my class, because first of all I'm a vegetarian so I didn't really like the idea. And also, I didn't want to get arrested for slaughtering goats in Central Park, so I had to make do. I did -- Leviticus does talk about sacrificing fruit and grain and dates and olives and such. So, I did do some of that. But yeah, it was it was one of those I had to interpret it a little more metaphorically than, you know, my goal is to do it as literally as possible. But sometimes, if you want to remain out of jail, you've got to take a little more metaphorically.

So, as you say, I mean, there are a couple of things that Leviticus really taught me. The first is, as you point out, a lot of these sacrifices have to do with gratitude. So, that was a good lesson, if I could be thankful without slitting any throats, that would be good. And the other part of this that Leviticus is really helpful was to me was, my background is very secular, so that was partly why I dived into this. And I was very skeptical of rituals, because they seemed so irrational to me. But when I thought about it and I talked to scholars, it occurred to me that secular people have rituals too. There's the birthday cake. And if a Martian came down and saw, you know, the birthday ritual of putting a fire on top of some sugar and egg, that's not any less or more rational than, say, avoiding clothes made of mixed fabrics. The key is that sometimes the ritual can be meaningful if you repeat it. It's something that brings people together, it binds the community, and the rituals and Leviticus where you kill animals, that's not my favorite kind of ritual. So, I would avoid that. But the Bible has many other rituals that I ended up, you know, I do now like to participate in.


[Rabbi Rick:] Beautiful, beautiful. And I think you're right 100% about -- we human beings create ritual. Sometimes there are secular rituals, whether it's around birthdays or retirements, you name it. We are a ritual-based group. So, one of the questions is, how do we find the most meaning in our rituals? And obviously, to do a slavish, literal try and re-enact the Biblical text is as challenging all through as you did for the year, but particularly about things that have evolved dramatically. Can we think particularly about the rituals around both thanks-giving, which, you know, isn't directly necessarily, purely the same as gratitude? But the idea that when something wonderful happened in my life, I would show up in the Temple and offer to say thank you, to express gratitude to the Holy One, that it wasn't just my good fortune that something happened, but it somehow reflected the larger purposes of the universe. So, can we talk -- I know, in just in reading your book on gratitude, one of the things that motivated you was to express directly to the people who otherwise you wouldn't ever express gratitude towards. You know, the person who grew the coffee, the person who trucked the coffee from the fields to the market, and all the -- just like, the whole world was a part of this. So, you know, how might that have also been expressed when you showed up in Jerusalem with your -- it could have been a meal offering, as you say, fruit, it didn't have to be an animal sacrifice. But, you know, I just see you showing up in antiquity and saying thank you to the priest and to the Levites and all the people that you met along the way as well as in a more traditional religious way, to say thank you to the Holy One for all the gifts. Whether one is secular or not. How do you think these rituals in antiquity, and as we are updating them throughout the ages, how effective are they as core expressions of gratitude, in terms of what you've learned in your book on gratitude?

[A.J. Jacobs:] Well, yeah. A couple of things occur to me. First, this book on gratitude was partly inspired because of the Bible prayer and the importance of gratitude. And I actually adopted a sort of -- I created my own ritual before dinner, where I would thank the people. I would try to say out loud, you know, thank you to the farmer who grew these tomatoes and the cashier at the grocery who sold me these tomatoes. And my son, who was 10 at the time, said, "You know, Dad, that that's fine, but you should, you know, these people can't hear you. So, it's kind of a waste. If you really care, you would go and thank them in person." And that's when the light bulb came on -- like, you know what, that is a pretty good book idea. And so, he earned his supper that night. And I spent the next several months, as you say, traveling the world, thanking all the people who had even the tiniest role in making my cup of coffee. And it made me realize just how many people we take for granted. And so, it was a lovely ritual. It was a pain in the butt, I don't recommend it for everyone because I have a book contract. But I do think the general idea of thanking all, and just being more grateful and aware of how much goes into every little thing in our lives.

And I can actually tie it quite closely to Judaism, because I wrote a piece about gratitude in Judaism for the Forward, which unfortunately is no longer in print, but will live on on the Internet. And I learned about this scholar named Ben Zoma. I don't know if I'm pronouncing that right, but he was a scholar in the 2nd Century, and he commented about how his team was amazed about how much Adam -- from Adam and Eve fame -- how hard it must have been for Adam to have clothes. He had to get this -- he had to get the wool and shear it and spin it and weave it. And by contrast, even back then, Ben Zoma said he would get up in the morning and find all of this prepared for him. His clothes were made for him. Artisans that made his house. Artisans had gone to the fields, and farmers had picked up dates in the field. So, this is an ancient notion, but I think an incredibly important one. Just how interconnected we all are, and how much we take for granted, that it's amazing how many people it takes to create one delicious cup of coffee. And it's just that radical shift in perspective, because, I think, you know I am generally, I was born with a Larry David state of mind. Sort of, very good at finding the negative. So, I've been fighting that, and this was a very helpful tool.

[Rabbi Rick:] Well first of all, you may not be the only one among the Jewish people that has that Larry David inclination. By the way, we may not have cornered the market as the Jewish people, but it's powerful what you're describing, because for you, again, prompted by your 10-year-old -- it wasn't simply a great idea for a book. And obviously, right, when you're a writer, writing a great book is itself a very wonderful thing. Tell me if I got this wrong: I sensed in the motivation also a kind of more self-improvement, actualization, which I think is at the heart of religious life. You know, I think it was true the time of the Bible. I don't think it was just to check all the boxes, you know, "Honey did we do we do the guilt offering? Well let's make sure to do this." And the truth is that it's about trying to become the best incarnation of ourselves that we can be, and that rituals and practices -- and by the way, saying, you know, a prayer before eating and a prayer of gratitude afterwards, those are sort of standard Jewish ritual practices. Not just a "check the box" but also to refine us, to make us as Maimonides says, the mitzvoth were to make us more refined as human beings, make us better. And I guess one of the questions is: how effective are they? We can't necessarily -- other than your book -- go back and interview people who are trying to live Biblically. But how powerfully was this ancient ritual in refining the people and making them the best that they could be? And did these rituals function in a cathartic way, in a self-corrective way? If I had so many gilt offerings in a row, I mean, like, is there a point where you say, "Hey you could stop doing all these things and just get on the other path. And you know you can then show up for thanks-giving rituals." So is part of that in your both book and in your learning, both the book on living biblically and the book on gratitude? How effective was it in changing you?

[A.J. Jacobs:] Yeah, it depended on the ritual, but I think this gratitude rituals in particular were really effective in making me a little bit of a better person. I mean, I still am.... I think I still struggle. And I still gossip, covet, and lie all the time. But I.... But I think that I have improved, and a lot of it is because of this idea of gratitude. And when it's practiced properly, it is a two-way street, because it's not just doing it for the other person, but you become a little bit of a better person. You recognize the humanity -- like, just something as simple as looking the barista in the eyes and saying thank you. Because when I interviewed the barista, she said the worst part of her day is -- well, first of all, it's a tough job, because people are coming to her un-caffeinated. So, right there, that's not easy. But people just don't even look up from their phones. They just thrust their credit card at her and treat her like some sort of, you know, vending machine. And she said that just, like, the taking two seconds to look someone in the eye makes all the difference. And when I did that, it made a difference for me, because I think humans are programmed to like contact. So, I really do think that that gratitude rituals will make you better. And there's fascinating research on this. That's in my book about how -- when you're feeling grateful, you're more prosocial, you're more likely to pay it forward.

[Rabbi Rick:] Beautiful. So, first of all, I love that it does affect us. And what you did in the gratitude book is also the thing that sometimes, you know, our religious traditions are accused of being very scrupulous about what we do in ritual, what we do in the temple or the church or the mosque. You know, how we pray, and whether we performed them all correctly. More important, sometimes, than how we live everyday life. When we look the barista in the eye, or when we pass someone on the street. And what you've done I think is to connect for us as a Jewish community, [that] it's how we are every day and every moment, whether it's dinner with our family, [or] a stop to pick up groceries. How do we embody the very best of our Jewish tradition? And the rituals can be powerful and helpful. But the truth is, integrating all those values in how we live our lives -- and then the most important thing: let those values make us better and better as we go through our lives, prompted, and elevated, and, frankly, enriched by a life of serious engagement with these values.

So, if you had only written "A Year of Living Biblically," dayeinu, it would have been enough. If you had only written the book about gratitude, it have been enough. But I want to say on behalf of your many, many readers -- thank you. We are grateful to you, A.J. Jacobs, not only for your insights on today's podcast, but for the way that you have gone all in to try and understand what are the enduring values and impacts of these both texts and categories of, I would say, religious expression. But even more, how do we make our world more whole more, compassionate, more grateful? All those things -- you've done them in your books. Now you've also shared it with our podcast listeners. A.J. Jacobs, thank you. Thank you. And thank you.

[A.J. Jacobs:] Thank You, Rabbi Jacobs, and thank you for your podcast, which I love. And thanks, Skype, for making this call possible!

[Rabbi Rick:] You got it. Thanks so much. We look forward to the next book. We'll be grateful for that one. Thank you.

[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 Apple Podcasts, 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!