04/20/2012 03:13 pm ET Updated Jun 20, 2012

The Torah's Case for Responsibility

There's a story about a child who asked his father the question: "Can you explain to me what a conscience problem is?" The father replied, "I'll give you an example. If a customer comes into my store and buys something for $1, and by mistake gives me $3, I suddenly have a conscience problem. Do I tell my partner or not?" The bad news in this story is that the father was inclined toward an unethical business practice. The good news is that he was at least thinking about the issue.

With all of the challenges that life throws at us, we need to develop our personal conscience toolkits to be able to pause to think about the consequences of our actions. We need to develop these toolkits now more than ever before. Just this week, our country has been shaken by not one but two scandals involving breach of the public trust. One involved members of President Obama's security detail consorting with prostitutes in Colombia that threatened to compromise their mission to protect the President. The other involved the coming to light of information that federal employees in the General Services Administration were spending tax payer dollars on themselves for lavish parties in Las Vegas. Clearly, our nation sorely needs to replenish our toolkit of conscience and responsible decision making. The Torah is a good place to turn to for guidance.

The weekly Torah portions often do not comprise a single linear narrative. Often there may be a narrative portion followed by a legal portion. There may not be a readily apparent connection between the sections. Parashat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) is one such portion that combines narrative and law. The central narrative is the shocking death of Nadav and Avihu, sons of Aaron the High Priest, when they bring eish zarah (strange fire) to the altar. Without any clear explanation of either the crime or punishment of Nadav and Avihu, the text then turns to a legal section containing ritual law. Many Jews would recognize Leviticus chapter 11 as one of the biblical cornerstones of the Jewish dietary laws. It lists the animals that are permitted to and prohibited from eating. On the surface, the Nadav and Avihu episode and the Jewish dietary laws bear little in common; however, I believe there is a common thread. Let's explore more deeply.

The Sages of the Midrash and Talmud speculate as to the reasons for the seemingly inexplicable death of Nadav and Avihu. Some find them guilty of egotism (each took his own fire pan, consulting neither with each other nor with their father, Aaron). There is the case made that they were drunk. This is derived from the Torah's prohibition of drinking wine before entering the Sanctuary that is mentioned in the immediate aftermath of this episode (Lev. R. 12:1). Others suggest that Nadav and Avihu were so casually dressed that they showed disrespect for their surroundings. In other words, the rabbis teach, don't forget your underwear. Further piling on Nadav and Avihu concerns their impatience to succeed Aaron and Moses as leaders of the people. The "strange fire" they bore was the fire of ambition, which prompted them to say, "When will these old men, our father and our uncle, die already so that we can take their place?"

Whatever actually constituted the strange fire that brought about the demise of Nadav and Avihu, the Sages are certain that God did not mete out punishment at random. Rather, they must have behaved in such a way, the Sages interpret, to deserve such a punishment. They differ on the specifics of what they did, but they are united in discerning recklessness on the part of Aaron's sons who behaved in a way unbefitting of their high office.

If we turn our attention to chapter 11 and laws of eating meat, we do not find explicit mention of God's reasoning for giving these laws. The best rationale is: You shall sanctify yourselves and be holy, for I Am holy (Leviticus 11:44). Rabbi Harold Kushner writes: "These laws elevate the eating of meat to a level of sanctity by introducing categories of permitted and forbidden. For animals, eating is a matter of instinct; only human beings can choose on moral or religious grounds not to eat something otherwise available" (Etz Hayim, p. 637). In other words, the ritual dietary restrictions force us to bring mindfulness to the act of eating. In so doing, we have greater potential to use greater consideration and forethought with all of our actions. As the Midrash teaches, the mitzvot (commandments) were given letzaref bahen et ha-briyot, to refine humanity.

The laws of kashrut (dietary laws) complement very well the episode of Nadav and Avihu. Their story and its rabbinic interpretation teach the consequences of an utter breakdown in personal responsibility. On the flip side of the same coin, the dietary laws give each and every person a tool with which to practice self-discipline and responsibility.

Our recent news headlines revealed gross recklessness among public servants. In both scandals, investigations have been launched; heads have rolled and will continue to do so. In both examples, the perpetrators abused their power and violated the public's sacred trust. They suffered egregious lapses in moral consciousness.

I'm not going to suggest that observing kashrut or any ritual laws serves as a panacea against moral turpitude. However, they help create a framework. They provide us with discipline. When we are mindful about what and how we feed our bodies, we are more likely to consider the words and actions produced by our bodies.

The Hebrew National kosher meat company gets it right in their company slogan: "We answer to a higher authority." Kashrut is a tool to temper our appetites. It provides a pathway to greater consciousness toward the world around us. Whether or not we keep kosher, I urge all of us to approach meal time with greater mindfulness towards how we feed ourselves and the values that we choose to live by that our food choices represent. I challenge current kosher keepers, myself included, to think about how our souls can be further refined to make responsible choices in life. To those who do not yet keep kosher, I offer the challenge if anything goes in terms of what we eat, on what basis can we make responsible choices in life. In addition, how can adopting one or more aspects of kashrut provide a framework for making responsible choices in life as a whole?

Let us answer the call of the Torah to make sacred choices in what we eat and, by extension, how we live. In so doing, we will embody the words of the Midrash and "refine humanity."