Shemini: When We Tell Ourselves ‘I’ is ‘We’

This week’s Parasha, Shemini, contains the awful story of how God consumes Aaron’s sons, Nadav and Avihu, after they bring “strange fire on the eighth day of the dedication of the Tabernacle in the desert.  In the haftarah, God also kills a seemingly innocent person who tried to stabilize the Ark with the Ten Commandments on its way to Jerusalem.

The explanations for why the fire consumes Nadav and Avihu range from claiming that they were so close to God, that God absorbed them, to midrashim that maintain that they were arrogant.  They would not marry because no woman was good enough for them. They would ask each other when Moses and Aaron would die, so that they could assume leadership.

No answer satisfies my theological questions. Many of us know that in our own lives we have paid a price for arrogance, and/or the resulting carelessness.  Arguably, those countries hardest hit by coronavirus have been those where initially arrogant attitudes led those countries to avoid necessary steps, and/or for citizens to engage in life threatening behavior.   However, most of us would ascribe those deaths to human mistakes (“Everything is in the hands of heaven, except the fear of heaven” –Babylonian Talmud Brakhot 33b), and even then would not blame the victims.  We are very uncomfortable with suggestions that God brings disasters upon us as punishment.  As we prepare to observe Holocaust and Resistance Day next Tuesday night/Wednesday, most of us bristle when it is suggested that God brought the Holocaust upon us as punishment.  We may believe that the Holocaust helped bring about the creation of the State of Israel we will celebrate one week after, but the idea that this was God’s Plan is disturbing, at best.

However each of us may personally understand why God allows evil and suffering in the world, and whether or not God brings disasters as punishment, it behooves all of us to look honestly at our own personal and national arrogances.  Often, various forms of arrogance lead to human rights violations.  Privileged, and “With God on our side,” our desires and aspirations supersede the needs of others.  We know better what is in the interest of others than they do.

Often economic and anti-poverty policies are predicated on the idea that those of us who are successful and enlightened must educate and retrain those living in poverty. They deserve to be in the situation they are in because of the bad choices they have made.  The premise of the “Israeli Wisconsin Plan” we eventually defeated was that the unemployed were leeches on the system  that had to be forced back into jobs, even without policies in place to create jobs.  The way to do so was to  punish those who didn’t cooperate by cutting all of their benefits.

I won’t deny that just as I have paid a price for my mistakes and arrogances, that some of those living in poverty have made bad choices.  I would also agree that society should not indulge self-destructive behaviors.  However, from there to believing that those with wealth and privilege are well off because they made the right and moral choices and therefore bear the “white man’s burden” of deciding for others what is best for them, or suggesting that society bears no responsibility because those living in poverty deserve to be in their situation, is even more problematic than ascribing the death of Nadav and Avihu to God’s Punishment.  I am prepared to accept that as a mere human being I have limited ability to understand God.  I am not willing to make similar allowances for fellow humans who feel they have the right or responsibility to punish those living in poverty.

We are taught that “All Israel is responsible for one another (I would add, “all humanity”). )Midrash Sifra Bekhukotai 7:5)  We are not taught, “All Israel is responsible for one another, except those who have made mistakes.”   In fact, the original meaning was just the opposite. It refers to our collective liability for the mistakes of others.

Collective responsibility is collective — both the responsibility and the solutions are shared.  Part of the arrogance of the Israeli Wisconsin plan was the idea that the enlightened would make the decisions, rather than bring those living into poverty into the discussion of how best to lift them out of poverty.  One of our proposals in our current struggle to revive public housing has been an ombudsperson’s office to deal with complaints regarding public housing agencies that would include people in public housing.  We do not need to idealize those living in poverty, or assume that they have all of the answers. But, neither do those of us not living in poverty.

Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch teaches that one who brings a sacrifice on the nation’s and the Torah’s holy ground must forgo his or her personal and subjective whims.  The firepans that Nadav and Avihu brought were “theirs,” rather than the firepans of the tabernacle.  All too often it is all too easy to delude ourselves that our personal desires are actually those that are in the interests of all.  I don’t believe that our sense of self can or should be obliterated. However, we must really learn to find a proper balance between the ‘I” and the “we,” rather than assume that the “I” is the “we.”

The real goal of the Israeli Wisconsin plan was to cut government expenses. Similarly, that seems to be the logic behind the too slowly changing concept that the government should perhaps give limited rental assistance, but not be in the business of public housing. Society does not need to take upon itself the burden for those who find it difficult to put a roof over their heads. They should fend for themselves on the open market.  Despite nice phrases about the good of those living in poverty or in need of housing, one must ask the question whether in both of these examples those living with privilege were/are formulating policies for the benefit of their own socioeconomic class.  The “I” is presented as the “we.”

On this Shabbat, I will live with my theological struggles, and pray that we learn to maintain our sense of self in harmony with the collective “we” of humanity.  If we succeed in doing so, we will make a major step forward in creating a more just world.

Shabbat Shalom

About the Author
Rabbi Arik Ascherman is the founder and director of the Israeli human rights organization "Torat Tzedek-Torah of Justice." Previously, he led "Rabbis For Human Rights" for 21 years. Rabbi Ascherman is a sought after lecturer, has received numerous prizes for his human rights work and has been featured in several documentary films, including the 2010 "Israel vs Israel." He and "Torat Tzedek" received the Rabbi David J. Forman Memorial Fund's Human Rights Prize fore 5779. Rabbi Ascherman is recognized as a role model for faith based human rights activism.
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