Is it more important to devote oneself to personal, spiritual development or to work for the good of the nation? I believe that a good argument can be made that commitment to the nation takes priority over commitment to one’s own spiritual needs. And one such source is a Midrash (Shemot Rabbah, 2:80), which links two kinds of animal slaughterings (not by blood, but by a common word — chukat). The Midrash has in mind the paschal lamb sacrifice of Exodus and the paradoxical ritual of the red heifer (purifying the defiled, but defiling all those involved in its preparation), discussed in this week’s portion, Chukat.
When it comes to the chukim of the paschal lamb and the red heifer, their interpretation by the Midrash focuses on two distinct approaches to Jewish life and practice.
If two identical women go out walking, how do we know which of the two is greater? Explains the Midrash that if one of the women is accompanying the other, is following behind the other, the one who is in front is the greater figure. Paralleling the case of the identical women, the Midrash guides us back to the case of the identical chukim and the original question. Which is greater, the paschal sacrifice or the red heifer? Obviously, it is the one that is accompanied by the other, the one that is leading the other; and although they appear to be similar in stature, the red heifer always accompanies the paschal lamb, following behind.
If the red heifer is about individual ritual and religious purity, and the paschal sacrifice is about national commitment, it becomes indubitably clear that when one’s own spiritual development comes into conflict with a national issue, then our national commitment must come first; the national commitment is the purpose for the spiritual cleansing.
The paschal sacrifice is the goal, the red heifer is the means.
Alone, many of the most important prayers cannot be said. This doesn’t mean that in Judaism an individual’s self- realization is always sacrificed for the greater good of the whole. Rather, a dialectic and a tension exists between being a “we-oriented” people or an “I-oriented” people. At times, one must zealously, and even selfishly, prepare oneself for ultimate greater service to the Jewish community by shutting out the needs of the world. But the overriding goal of the individual must be to contribute to the needs of the nation so that we may indeed be a kingdom of priest-teachers to perfect the world.
Rabbi Shlomo Riskin is the chief rabbi of Efrat.