Parasha Vayikra: The individual and the nation

‘You, every person in every generation, can pave your own unique path'

March 30, 2017 12:43
4 minute read.
Garazi Sanchez-Ortun

Garazi Sanchez-Ortun, a surfer from the Basque Country ‘paves her own path’ and celebrates after winning the women’s finals in the World Surf League Pro Netanya, in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Netanya earlier this year. (photo credit: REUTERS)

This week, we start the Book of Leviticus, having completed reading the Book of Exodus last Shabbat.

This book deals primarily with laws of the Temple, purity and impurity, and therefore it is also called Torat Hakohanim, the Torah of the priests.

Reading it today might seem irrelevant to our lives, since the Temple has not stood in Jerusalem for almost 2,000 years. However, reading and listening to the words of the Torah carefully shows us that even those sections that, at first glance, seem irrelevant reveal themselves to have implications for all areas of life and can provide significance to our lives in every generation and culture.

The parasha of Vayikra deals with halachot, Jewish laws, pertaining to sacrifices in the Temple. Besides the public sacrifices that were sacrificed in the Temple daily, there are two other major kinds of sacrifices: one is the sacrifice of hatat – a man who sinned brings a sacrifice to the Temple and thus atones for his sin. The second kind is nedava – a man who wants to contribute a sacrifice can do so and bring his sacrifice to the Temple.

The laws of the sacrifices do not begin with the daily public sacrifices in the name of the entire nation, but, rather, with the sacrifices of the individual. God commands Moses and tells him the laws of the sacrifices and the details regarding the animals from which these sacrifices can be brought: “Speak to the Children of Israel, and say to them: When a man from [among] you brings a sacrifice to the Lord, from animals, from cattle or from the flock you shall bring your sacrifice” (Lev. 1:2).

The choice to begin with the sacrifices of the individual, and among them the sacrifices that are not obligatory but are voluntary, is not incidental. It comes to express the special significance of the individual’s sacrifice.

There is an inherent conflict between two concepts in Judaism: On the one hand, the Jewish nation is seen as an organic body, with the individual always being part of the whole. Judaism seeks to raise the people of Israel, to sanctify it, to make it loftier and better. The commandment-fulfilling individual surely is doing the right thing, but the main goal is not the individual but, rather, guiding the nation in God’s path so that it becomes a moral and ideological beacon for the world.

On the other hand, the Torah does speak directly to the individual. There is a focus on his or her deeds, self-realization, and intimate relationship with God.

Seemingly, no attention is paid to his or her being an individual within the whole of the Jewish nation.

The sacrifices – which were the main way of worshiping God during the time of the Temple – express both these outlooks. The public sacrifices express the national perspective, that which does not put the individual at the forefront but sees the entire nation as one unit composed of all its parts. The individual sacrifices, however, express the place of the private individual and his or her ability to walk in a unique, independent path. This provides spiritual significance geared to the individual while ignoring his or her being part of the nation.

By choosing to begin with individual sacrifices, the Torah expresses the correct order of priority. One cannot – and, indeed, should not – erase his or her personal identity to blend into the national identity. Only after people build their own character and unique way of worshiping God can they ascend one additional level and belong to the community through public sacrifices.

With this perspective, we can grasp another important detail in the laws of sacrifices. Individual sacrifices can be voluntary, with no prior obligation necessitating a specific sacrifice to be brought at a specific time.

But public sacrifices are not voluntary. There is no option for the public to decide to bring another sacrifice which they were not commanded to bring. Generosity of the heart, that same pure feeling that brings a person closer to worshiping God, is revealed in the individuals who pave their own paths by their initiatives, through introspection and learning what is the best way to move forward and become better people. However, the public functions differently, on a level of law and obligation. Generosity and contributions exist in the realm of the individual.

Moses speaks to the entire nation – “Speak to the Children of Israel,” but ultimately his words are directed at the individual: “When a man... brings a sacrifice” (ibid.).

This is the complexity that integrates both concepts – individuality and nationality. On the one hand, the individual’s worship is expressed. You, every person in every generation, can pave your own unique path.

This is your right and your obligation. But on the other hand, do not forget where you come from. You are not alone in the world; you are not drifting without tradition or a nation. Ultimately, all the individuals who pave their own paths will create this stunning mosaic called the Jewish nation.

■ The writer is the rabbi of the Western Wall and holy sites.

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