The Perils of Individualism

This week’s portion, Shimini, carries us deeper into the book of Leviticus.

The first half of the portion is the initiation of the sacrificial cult: the Torah describes in dramatic fashion the first sacrifices Aaron and his sons carry out in their role as priests. They slaughter various animals corresponding to the different types of offerings, they splatter blood on the altar and fire consumes the corpses. Aaron and his sons then bless the people and the people fall on their faces.

The second half of the portion is an explication of the dietary laws. We are told specifically which animals are kosher and which are not: we learn that kosher land animals have cloven hooves and are ruminants, kosher birds are not birds of prey and kosher sea creatures have fins and scales. We also learn some other regulations as to what may or may not be eaten.

As with other passages in Leviticus, Shimini is heavy on ritual, some of which we may struggle to connect to. The sacrificial system is not practiced today so seems particularly foreign. (Though, I would suggest, the power and pageantry of ritual in general is something we can identify.) The dietary laws are still practiced today, though this passage in Leviticus reminds us that the reason for them is not explicit in the Torah. (Though later tradition applies reason and meaning.)

In the middle of these two ritual-themed passages is an equally challenging narrative:

Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before God alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from God and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of God. Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what God meant when God said: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” And Aaron was silent. (Leviticus 10:1-3)

There are many questions raised by this short passage, but we can understand from the text that Nadav and Avihu did something wrong, and they were punished for their transgression.

Put in context with the passage that came before, we can have an understanding of what perhaps their transgression was. The Torah says they offered “alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them.” Earlier in the parasha, when describing the initial sacrifices, the Torah says, at various times, “this is what God has commanded,” and “according to regulation” andNadav and Avihu “as Moses had commanded.” What the Torah is telling us is that while the first set of sacrifices was what was commanded, what Nadav and Avihu offered was not. Essentially what they were doing was offering a sacrifice that was outside the norm of the ordained and organized system of sacrifices.

It seems very extreme, though. Did they really deserve death for a slight deviation from the norm? And besides, is what they did so wrong? It can be argued that what Nadav and Avihu did when they offered the additional sacrifice was to further glorify God—they were not offering something in contradistinction to, but rather in addition to, what was proscribed, due to their zeal, or desire to serve, or love of Torah.

This may be, but what perhaps the Torah is trying to teach us in this story is the perils of individualism. The extreme nature of the story aside—and this isn’t the first time a story in the Torah is extreme it its details—the Torah is showing us that by branching off on their own Nadav and Avihu were violating their communal responsibility and trust to the detriment of the whole. They system of sacrifices for the entire Israelite community was set. In making their own offering outside these norms, Nadav and Avihu were placing their own desires above the norms of the community. They were acting in their own self-interest. But for Nadav and Avihu, who were leaders and priests, it can’t just be about them. It has to be about the whole.

This mindset does not just fall upon our leaders, but upon all of us who live in community. When we fail to take into account our communal responsibility, and we privilege ourselves over others, we privilege individualism over communalism, we weaken our social bonds.

Individualism is different than individuality. We are of course all individuals, we have our own likes and dislikes, ideas and dreams, needs and desires. We make our own choices and set our own path. But we do not live in a vacuum, we are part of a communal whole. We pursue our own paths within the context of others, and we have a responsibility and obligation to keep the needs and desires of others in mind as we seek to fulfill our own needs and desires.

In our day this can take many forms. The recent outbreak of measles at Disneyland brought the issue of vaccinations—and those who opt-out—to the fore. Locally the issue led to the public revelation of vaccination rates, and Yohanna and I discovered that Erez’s elementary school had one of the highest unvaccinated rates. This was startling and unnerving. I don’t need to get into issues of “herd immunity” or scientific detail, but to simply say that vaccines work because we all agree to use them. They are part of a social contract—we agree to abide by certain guidelines when we live in community, and when we privilege the self over the other—individualism over communalism—then we violate that contract.

Yes, we need to honor the individuality of each person, and do what we can to support those individual journeys. But we need to be mindful so that individuality does not become individualism.

Nadav and Avihu broke the rules. There are times we go must outside the box, and we need to do things differently. There are times we must think creatively, and we need to challenge the existing norms. But we must ask, to what end? If it is to serve others and a greater good, then that is something we should pursue. But if it is to serve our own self interest at the expense of others, then, as in the case of Nadav and Avihu, it is a transgression and there will be consequences.

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