Meaning and connection: Bringing ancient teachings into our everyday lives

Rabbi Ryan E. Daniels

By Rabbi Ryan E. Daniels, Guest Torah Columnist

Torah Portion: Tzav (Leviticus 6:1−8:36)

I teach a monthly class at the synagogue for seventh grade boys. Primarily utilizing Moving Traditions’ Shevet curriculum, we explore masculinity and what it means to be a mensch.

Together we discuss Jewish values such as friendship, wisdom, strength and competition through the lenses of both pop-culture and our ancient Jewish sources.

Most importantly, we create safe space for each student to wrestle with Jewish tradition and connect with one another. We watch videos, play games and debate… we debate, and debate and debate. We often speak about their journies to becoming b’nei mitzvah, a milestone most will celebrate during our year together, and since some come to class directly from appointments with their b’nei mitzvah tutors, it is not uncommon for students to enter the classroom humming sections of their Torah portions.

A funny thing happened last class when two boys, both excited to show the other that they could chant their portion from memory, realized that the first verse of both was exactly the same.

Almost in harmony they sang, Vaydabeir Adonai el-Moshe leimor… (“The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying… ”), and they were surprised to hear their friend chant the very same words.

Realizing the opportunity for an important teachable moment, we spent some time discussing theuse of that verse as the introduction to so many Torah pericopes, commonly followed by the Hebrew verbs emor (“speak”) or dabeir (“say”).

Not this week though. This week we read Parashat Tzav (“command”), the second portion in the book of Leviticus. Like many other readings, the portion begins, “The Eternal spoke to Moses, saying: Command Aaron and his sons thus” about the sacrificial rites. Unlike the more common “speak” or “say” found in other portions, here the use of the word “command” is much stronger.

In fact, in his commentary on Leviticus 6:1, the medieval Torah commentator, Rashi(1040-1105), teaches, “the expression ‘Command’ always implies urging… implying too, that it comes into force at once, and is binding upon future generations.”

So if you have ever taught middle school or have a teenager of your own, you know that it is there, with the very first significant word of this week’s portion, “command,” that I lose many of my seventh grade students. In truth, the concept of obligation is complicated for many progressive Jews, both adolescents as well as their adult parents and grandparents. Even more so when what follows those opening words is a litany of instructions to Aaron and his sons, the priests, regarding sacrifices, rituals that ceased so long ago with the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in the year 70 CE.

How, then, should we read this week’s Torah portion today? Perhaps we have a lot to learn from my dubious seventh graders who are quick to challenge the text’s relevance and eager to debate its significance (or insignificance) in their lives. For a cursory reading of the peshat, the text’s literal meaning, is not enough. Rather, we must ask tough questions and wrestle with the nuance, seeking ways to embody Torah’s teachings. In his new curriculum, Ten Paths to God, renowned scholar, Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, teaches, “Judaism’s genius was to take high ideals and translate them into life by simple daily deeds: the way of mitzvot, acting in accordance with G-d’s will. We do not just contemplate truth: we live it.”

The Hebrew Bible’s prophetic writings, too, encourage its readers to lean into tradition so that ritual serves our spiritual pursuits. For example, while this week’s Torah portion emphasizes the centrality of sacrificial rites in ancient Jewish life, in the Haftarah portion, Jeremiah rebukes the people for sacrificing in G-d’s name, lifting up the prophetic call for justice above all:

“For when I freed your ancestors from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this is what I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your G-d and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you” (Jeremiah 7:22-23).

Even more poignant is the message we hear on Yom Kippur, a day on which many of us deny ourselves of food and drink, but the day’s Haftarah reading asks, “Is this the fast I desire?,” suggesting that there is more. Isaiah answers his own question: “No, this is the fast I desire: To unlock fetters of wickedness, untie the cords of the yoke to let the oppressed go free” (Isaiah 58:5-6). Our mission, says Isaiah, is not simply to starve ourselves, as one might glean from a basic understanding of tradition, but to fulfill our greater obligation to honor all of G-d’s Creation. In doing so, we seek repentance and return to the Divine.

On the surface, there appears to be tension between what is written and deeper pursuits incumbent upon Jewish adults. What is certain is that we are left holding both: preservers of a millenia-old tradition with its many commandments and the prophetic call to live purposeful lives of meaning and service to others and the world. Perhaps the former leads to the latter.

Rabbi Sacks elaborates on the importance of moving beyond contemplating tradition to living as G-d demands of each of us: “We don’t contemplate creation by studying theoretical physics. We live it by making a blessing over what we eat and drink, acknowledging G-d as the creator of all we enjoy. We don’t think about our responsibility for the environment. We keep Shabbat, setting a limit, one day in seven, to our exploitation of the world. We don’t just study Jewish history. On the fasts and festivals, we re-enact it. Truth becomes real when it becomes deed. That is how we transform the world.”

That is precisely my hope for each of my seventh graders as they journey to b’nei mitzvah (mi-TZAV-ah), obligated in observance and eligible to participate in specific Jewish rituals. In truth, that is my prayer for us all, me included. May we all continue to wrestle with Jewish tradition, asking important questions and exploring opportunities to embody the mitzvot.

Holding both the most complicated, seemingly antiquated texts like the rituals offered us in this week’s Torah portion, as well as the more feasible traditions found elsewhere. In doing so we, indeed, transform the world and climb even higher in our own journey for connection and meaning.

Rabbi Ryan Daniels is rabbi at North Shore Congregation Israel.

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