Two types of Jewish involvement


Rabbi Eric Abbott

This week’s Torah portion is Vayikra: Leviticus 1:1-5:26.

Growing up, I was (as I proudly declare) a Hebrew school nerd. I loved tutoring my peers in their b’nai mitzvah preparations, attending Shabbat services and holding meaningful conversations in confirmation class.

Unfortunately, we know that not everyone approaches our faith and traditions with this eager attitude. Perhaps you may have been part of this conversation: “I know you hate Hebrew school — so did I. But I had to go, and so you do.” We see this dichotomy between internal motivation and external obligation in this week’s Torah portion.

Vayikra opens the book of Leviticus with complex instructions for how to perform various sacrifices. Contemporary scholar Rabbi David Jaffe, elaborating on the medieval sage Rashi, contrasts the sacrifices described at the beginning of the portion to those described at the end: the earlier sacrifices are “freewill” offerings, meaning they come from the heart, a desire to worship God; the later sacrifices, the ones that atone for our sins, must be performed.

Rabbi Jaffe continues: “This same interplay of responsibility and open- hearted giving is a feature of many healthy human relationships. Strong relationships cannot rely only on freewill desire to give and connect. Such relationships, while feeling good in the moment, are undependable. … On the other hand, relationships must be more than just obligations.

“Ideally, a good relationship is built on both — a sense of obligation that binds you to the other person and the free will to want to be in the relationship and get closer with each interaction.”

In our personal relationships, Rabbi Jaffe explains, we need both the obligation and the freewill desire.

This dual motivator applies not only to our relationships to other people, but also to our commitments to the Jewish community. Having worked in both the congregational and Hillel worlds, I have seen many individuals join the Jewish community due to a feeling of responsibility: parental or grandparental guilt, an undefinable “sense of obligation,” a duty to survival based on the Holocaust or antisemitism, and countless other extrinsic factors that press us to participate.

Without these external motivators, how many people would never step foot into a Hillel, would not make financial contributions to Jewish organizations, and would not stand up against antisemitism?

Yet these motivating factors may not always be enough. Sometimes, we crave something more, an experience that makes us declare, “This makes me feel good and I want to do more!” or “I find meaning, comfort and solace here.”

Finding the balance between these two categories of engagement has been part of my work at Bethesda Jewish Congregation. I am dedicated to the spiritual and physical continuity of our people. Yet, as I constantly tell parents, if students come away knowing the prayers but hating religious school, then what’s the point? I strive for experiences that leave community members feeling fulfilled and finding purpose.

Connecting with a Jewish community today often involves both obligation and meaning. When we teach about commitments to the Jewish people and to Jewish traditions, when we push back against antisemitism as we also elevate all the great things about our tradition, when we help parents find Jewish education that is both fun and informative, and when we create experiences that are spiritual and uplifting, then we can ensure people connect to Jewish life through both a feeling of responsibility and a sense of meaning. ■

Rabbi Eric Abbott is the spiritual leader of Bethesda Jewish Congregation.

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