Nathan Katz, professor of religions of India, the history of religions, and spirituality at Florida International University, and a member of the delegation, has written:
The Dalai Lama is intrigued that Jews are able to embrace both secular and religious members within our family. Paul [Professor Paul Mendes-Flohr, scholar of Modern Jewish History and Thought at Hebrew University and University of Chicago Divinity School] eloquently articulates the dilemma of modernity: personal fulfillment is the watchword of the modern world, whereas communal responsibility is the hallmark of tradition. Jews are perceived as the first people to find a balance between the two — individualism and community — providing a model for any traditional people confronting the modern world.
Balancing individualism and community is no easy task. I see the earliest echoes of that effort in Parshat Re’eh in and around the question of the consumption of meat and tithes. We find, in Torah, an interesting progression of ideas about when, and for what purpose, meat is eaten.
We know that the patriarchs made sacrifices wherever they found themselves. Jacob built an altar in Beth El. There was a cultic center in Shechem for a many centuries, particularly after the nation split into a Northern Kingdom and a Southern Kingdom following the reign of King Solomon. And indeed, Exodus 20:21 seems to permit sacrifices to be made anywhere.
Leviticus 17:2-7, however, already knows of a centralized sanctuary:
…This is in order that the Israelites may bring the sacrifices that they have been making in the open — that they may bring them before the Lord, to the priest, at the entrance to the Tent of Meeting, and offer them as sacrifices of well-being to the Lord… (Leviticus 17:5)
Deuteronomy reflects the centralization of sacrifice, but also recognizes that animals might be slaughtered in a non-cultic setting; that is, merely for food. In this week’s parashah we read:
Take care not to sacrifice your burnt offerings in any place you like, but only in the place that the Lord will choose in one of your tribal territories. There you shall sacrifice your burnt offerings and there you shall observe all that I enjoin upon you… You may not partake in your settlements of the tithes of your new grain or new wine or oil, or of the firstlings of your herds and flocks, or of any of the votive offerings that you vow, or of your freewill offerings, or of your contributions. These you must consume before the Lord your God in the place that the Lord your God will choose — you and your sons and your daughters, your male and female slaves, and the Levite in your settlements — happy before the Lord your God in all your undertakings. Be sure not to neglect the Levite as long as you live in your land. (Deuteronomy 12:13-14, 17-19)
What might we do with this? What message is there for us beyond an interesting little lesson in the historical and political development of Israel’s sacrificial cult?
There are two poles of Jewish life: home and community. Home is the locus for the celebration of many holidays and rituals. It is the mikdash me’at (“small sanctuary”) reflecting the values and aspirations of the larger nation in an intimate miniature — home and hearth, with the ones we know best and who know us best. But the mikdash me’at (home and hearth) is not sufficient. Home alone is life in isolation. We need the Mikdash itself — the broader community. Torah seeks to strike a balance between home and sanctuary, between individuality and community. We are best off when we have both in our lives.
It’s worth reiterating Nathan Katz’s summary of Paul Mendes-Flohr’s observation:
…personal fulfillment is the watchword of the modern world, whereas communal responsibility is the hallmark of tradition. Jews are perceived as the first people to find a balance between the two — individualism and community — providing a model for any traditional people confronting the modern world.
Mendes-Flohr’s observation is worthy of our serious consideration. The key is the word “responsibility” which is perhaps another way to say commitment and involvement. While some sacred moments and rituals are best reserved for the intimacy of the family dinner table (shabbat dinners, Pesach seders, and Chanukah celebrations come to mind here), others are far more meaningful in the context of community (here High Holy Day worship, a child becoming bar/bat mitzvah, and Shavuot celebrations jump to mind). There is immeasurable value in coming together as a community — and accordingly reserving certain sacred moments, rites, and experiences to be with the broader community — and not just family or those whom we adopt as family.
It helps to remember that it’s not just that each of us needs a community to be part of; the community needs each one of us.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman