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, 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.
In regard to the paschal sacrifice, the same word, chukat, appears. "This is the ordinance (chukat) of the pesach, no stranger shall eat of it" (Exodus 12:43).
Any law in the Torah called chok has no rational explanation. Essentially, a chok is different from those commandments that are universally understood as "rational natural laws," like prohibitions against stealing, killing, etc. Rational laws are the key to a society's survival, but a chok is geared to the Jewish nation and religious ritual; it is often mysterious, and beyond reason.
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.
Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveichik said that the red heifer enables a person to participate in ritual ceremony — those commandments that link the individual with God. Thus, the red heifer represents individual, spiritual purity.
On the other hand, the paschal sacrifice represents the national commitment of the Jewish people. The commandment to bring the "pesach" was given just when we emerged as a nation, struggling to escape the claw of slavery. When the Torah commands the Jewish people to bring the paschal sacrifice, it tells us in the very same verse that a non-Jew is forbidden to eat of it. And since every single Jew in the community of Israel was commanded to take part, this ritual united every Jew to his fellow Jew.
If the red heifer is about individual ritual and religious purity, and the paschal sacrifice is about national commitment, it becomes clear that when one's own spiritual development conflicts with a national issue, then our national commitment must come first; the national commitment is the purpose for the spiritual cleansing.
About Our Priorities
If we look at prayer, we see how its observance in Jewish practice teaches us something unique about our priorities. More often than not, prayer is an occasion when an individual trembles before God, an individual beseeches, an individual hopes. But for Jews, prayer is closely linked to a public moment. Individual prayer is consigned to a lower spiritual potential than when a group of at least 10 — a minyan — pray together; that minyan is representative and symbolic of the Jewish nation.
And indeed, even when we pray alone, our prayer is always in plural, for the entire nation: "Heal us, O God, so that we may be healed; see our affliction; restore Jerusalem to us."
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, yet 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, Israel.