Last week, after five years of study, I received my rabbinic ordination at American Jewish University. It was an incredible few days of celebration and transformation, made sweeter by the fact that my father Paul Root Wolpe was asked to speak at the graduation ceremony while receiving an honorary doctorate. During his commencement speech, my father offered a challenge and a blessing to the impending graduates: that we use our education to reinvent Judaism, as every generation has done, through creating and reinvigorating rituals which reflect our values.
It was a poignant charge for our class, which consists of a spread of innovative and traditional viewpoints, but all of whom carefully consider the evolving needs of the Jewish community. Balancing the new and the old is a classic tension in Jewish living and in rabbinic text. Chazal uses rabbinic logic to flip pshat understanding in Tanakh, the kabbalists add layers of meaning to every letter, and all while the Torah says that we should not add or subtract a single thing (Deut 4:2). So, as the descendants of Hebrew ancestors who upended the beliefs of their time to follow a divine calling, and also as the descendants of Jewish ancestors who preserved a complex and demanding tradition through centuries of exile, where do we find our balance?
This week’s parshah Bechukotai warns us that if we follow God’s laws, we reap peace and prosperity, but if we stray, the land and its inhabitants will curse us. But what it means to follow God’s law is quickly expanded. According to Rashi, in the opening verse of our parshah, Leviticus 26:3, the work chukim in the phrase אִם־בְּחֻקֹּתַ֖י תֵּלֵ֑כוּ/If you follow my laws, refers not to laws, but to studying Torah. Rashi concludes this because the verse already says וְאֶת־מִצְותַ֣י תִּשְׁמְרוּ/and observe my mitzvot, and actions must be balanced by wisdom. Unsurprisingly, Rashi believes that studying Torah, thus gaining the ability to interpret and apply its teachings to the present world, works in tandem to the observance of mitzvot. This elevates Torah from an instruction manual to a conversation through the generations, empowering each generation to reinterpret our holy texts.
Our parsha continues that if we follow the chukim and mitzvot, God will bless us and be with us:
וְהִתְהַלַּכְתִּי֙ בְּת֣וֹכְכֶ֔ם וְהָיִ֥יתִי לָכֶ֖ם לֵֽאלֹהִ֑ים וְאַתֶּ֖ם תִּהְיוּ־לִ֥י לְעָֽם׃
I will be ever present in your midst: I will be your God, and you shall be My people. (Leviticus 26:12)
Italian commentator Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno hones in on the phrase והתהלכתי בתוככם, I will be ever present in your midst. He says that the meaning of this reflexive conjugation can be read as, “I will walk with you in whatever direction you are going, back and forth and sideways.” God is not in a single location, not even in a single route of God’s choosing—God, if we pursue righteousness, will walk with us in whichever direction we go. Wherever the righteous are found, Sforno adds, holiness will be present.
When you think back on your Jewish life, at what moments did you feel holiness present? Which of these moments are from the Judaism of your youth, that older generations presented to you, and which moments came from the creations of your generation? Have you noticed any of your peers using their Torah learning to shift practice and create Jewish observance? Can you identify ways that your generation has shaped the path we are walking on?
Sforno and Rashi, while interpreting different verses, hang their understanding on the same verb, הלכ, to walk—in the first case, referring to the path of Torah study, and in the second, referring to the path of righteous lives. Halakha, the body of mitzvot and process of enacting Torah in our every step, comes from this same root. From living halakhic lives, these commentators know that this root indicates a layered, complex process of living Jewishly. Our tradition teaches us that while we must observe mitzvot and draw on an ancient understanding of God’s voice, the ultimate goal is to walk beside God in present time on the path of righteousness. How we get there depends on what each generations needs and believes, but it can only occur with a balance of observance and study, of deeds and wisdom, of old and new.
We walk through our neighborhoods, passing blooming flowers and playing children, and so too we step through time, our traditions and innovations directing the path of our lives. I know that through my rabbinate, it will sometimes be unclear which practices to observe as my grandparents did and which to experiment with. But it is not the rabbi’s job to reinvent and conserve the pieces of Judaism they find lacking or meaningful. That is all of our job. And our rabbis and Jewish professionals and teachers are here to empower each generation to find a way to build a communal Judaism of righteousness and meaning.
May we continue to choose the path which brings us in step with God, holding dear what we’ve been given, and what is yet to be.