Sometimes, what appears logical to us on the surface may prove to not be as logical as we thought. The rabbis teach us that between "doing something for someone else on our own initiative" and "doing something for someone else because we were told to do it" the latter is the greater virtue. Their explanation - that it is human nature to resist doing what we are told, and therefore, overcoming this innate behavior is an act greater than the voluntary one. As much as I always prefer to put a positive "spin" on human nature and human characteristics, I'm reluctant to argue with the rabbis' take here. I do believe it really is our nature to resist doing what we are told to do (or doing what we are told not to do.)
Our parasha outlines for us the basic laws of what is fit and not fit for Jews to eat. And it also relates the story of my two favorite crispy critters (you knew I would get to that, didn't you) Nadav and Avihu. Many commentators have tried to give a positive "spin" to that story, suggesting that they were consumed as sacrifices in order to make Gd's altar holy. This stands in stark contrast to some of the other explanations. Were Nadav and Avihu influenced by strong drink? Were they simply overly zealous? Did they fall prey to that same human weakness-our innate resistance to doing things exactly as we were told to do them?
I've yet to figure out the puzzle of Nadav and Avihu. Others, for more knowledgeable and worthy than I, have tried. For me it remains a puzzle, and in that, perhaps, lays the power of the story-that it doesn't seem to make sense.
Which brings us back to the idea that overcoming our inclination to do something because we were told to do it is a great feat indeed. And that brings me around not to Nadav and Avihu, but to the laws of kashrut.
Now I'll be honest enough to say that I don't really understand why some animals are considered clean and others not. I've read how the rabbis and others have grouped them into certain categories, or tried to explain why certain animals were considered clean or unclean on the basis of some of their instinctive behaviors. I'll also be honest enough to say that I have my own continual struggles with determining what it is that I must do as a Jew in regards to the laws of kashrut.
At times, I think I have it all figured out. It may be that I may never understand the reasons for these mitzvot, and that I just have to either accept or reject them as relevant and meaningful. And at times I lean one way or the other-towards acceptance or rejection. I experience the difficulty of accepting being told what to do for someone else. ("Kashrut is for someone else?" I hear you ask. "I though it was for us." Well, that may be one understanding, but when you get right down to it, we're really doing it for Gd-not even that, but because Gd "said so." At times, that may be enough of a reason for some, at other times not.)
And just when I grow comfortable with one cyclical peak or another (total acceptance or total rejection) something comes along to shake my perceptions.
Maybe it was simply asking too much of my small human brain to watch both "I Heart Huckabees" and "What the Bleep Do We Know?" within 24 hours of each other. And then throw into the mix reading some Torah and other Jewish writings (religious and secular,) perusing articles on Beliefnet, trying to deal with all the hype and hyperbole surrounding the life and death of Terry Schiavo, and now the health of the Pope. ("What does the Pope's health have to do with anything?" I hear you ask. Can anyone seeking to come to terms with ideas like Gd and faith and mitzvot and "why am I here?" ignore the impact of this one human on millions of others? Can I come to terms with Judaism in a vacuum that ignores everything else out there? While this approach may have safely seen us through centuries of persecution, I think it has outlived its usefulness. And we kid ourselves to think that, even in our years of isolation and segregation, our practices and beliefs remained uninfluenced by what was happening outside our own communities.)
If I am to be of Yisrael, of those who struggle with Gd, then I must struggle. And struggle I do. My Judaism cannot remained unaffected by my knowledge and understanding of physics, of quantum mechanics, of other faith systems. I must question my understanding (and the understanding of others, great scholars and humble peasants alike) of what I/they think it is that Gd commands me/us to do. I must similarly question the assumptions and hypotheses of great scientists and philosophers, of script writers and film directors, of journalists, physicians, pundits, et al.
As I sit here writing this, continually in the background is CNN in what can only be described as death-watch coverage of the Pope's condition. Despite thousands of years of tradition, how can one honestly believe that the Church remains unaffected by the passing of time, by the realities of modern medicine and science, the media, the internet, etc.? How might our Judaism be different had we had then what we have now, had we known then what we know now? There are those who say that such speculations are meaningless, that what happened happened. With this I cannot argue. However, I will argue that we cannot live today as if things are still as they were thousands of years ago.
Still, there is much that has not changed. There is much written about in the Torah that has not changed. It remains a truism that Jews are stubborn and stiff-necked. It remains a truism, at least for me, that our natural inclination is to be resistant to doing things because we have been told to do them, as opposed to doing them of our own volition. And while thousands of years of conditioning may have begun to chip away at our natural tendency to be selfish and care more about ourselves than others, I would still agree with the rabbis' assessment that doing something for someone else because we were told to do so is the greater virtue as opposed to doing it of our own volition, for we must still overcome our natural tendencies.
And, cutting to the chase, the logical conclusion would seem to be that adhering to the Jewish dietary laws simply because they are mitzvot is the greater virtue when compared to a voluntary acceptance of kashrut through ethical or other modern lenses. However, as I started out this musing, sometimes, what appears logical to us on the surface may prove to not be as logical as we thought.
And while I should stop there, with that textbook bit of homiletics, coming back to my opening statement, I can't resist putting this thought, this charge, in your mind (and mine as well.) Imagine a conversation between Nadav and Avihu, looking down upon and commenting on not only what happened to them, but all that has transpired since. I know that's gonna keep me awake tonight. Hope I don't disturb your Shabbat menuchah too much with this thoughtful challenge.
© 2005 by Adrian A. Durlester
Some previous musings on the same parasha:
Shemini 5764-Playing Before
Shemini 5763 - Belly of the Beast
Shemini 5762-Crispy Critters
Shemini 5761-Lessons From Our Students
Shemini 5760-Calm in a Crisis
Shemini 5759-Porking Out
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