The end of Zevachim addresses the issue of personal versus collective responsibility. On 97b, the Gemara asks why a Kohen cannot eat the meat of a sacrifice that has absorbed the juices of an invalid sacrifice. While it is prohibited to eat an invalid sacrifice, i.e., the absorbed juices, shouldn’t the mitzvah of eating the kosher sacrifice override, based on the principle of aseh dokhe lo ta’aseh, a positive mitzvah overrides a negative one? To this question Rava responds: “A positive mitzvah does not override a negative one in the Temple.” This statement begs for an explanation, although none is given in the Gemara. Why should the mitzvot relating to the Temple be different? Shouldn’t there perhaps be even a greater obligation to do the mitzvot of the Temple than other mitzvot?
The answer emerges, I believe, from a clearer understanding of what it means to have a mitzvah in connection with the sacrifices. There is a mitzvah, say, to bring the twice-daily ‘olah, burnt offering. Who, exactly, is obligated to bring it? All the Kohanim? All the Kohanim working that day? Certainly it is not an obligation on any specific Kohen. It is most accurate to say that it is not that a person is commanded, but that the thing must be done. The burnt offering must be brought daily, and this is a collective responsibility of the Kohanim. This framing can be seen in the way Rambam phrases some of these mitzvot in the opening of his Laws of Sacrifices: “The Process of the Chatat” (mitzvah 3); “The Process of the Asham” (mitzvah 6); “The Process of the Shlamim” (mitzvah 10); and so on. Thus, even when he gets to our case, the eating of sacrifices, and focuses on the Kohanim’s act, to wit: “That the Kohanim should eat the meat of the Most Holy Sacrifices in the Temple” (mitzvah 7), it stands to reason that this is not a personal mitzvah, but a collective obligation on the Kohanim to ensure that the sacrifice be eaten.
This idea of a collective, non-personal obligation can be found in a very common mitzvah today, and that is praying in a minyan. According to most poskim, this is not a personal obligation – note how many observant people do not pray in a minyan! It is true that there is great value to pray in a minyan, and people are strongly encouraged to do so, and one can be assured that his or her prayers will be accepted when they pray in a minyan, but it is not a strict personal obligation to do so. Does that mean that a community need not have a regular minyan? No, while it is not a personal obligation, there is a demand that a regular minyan take place, and it is the community’s responsibility to ensure that this happens.
If this is then the way to frame the mitzvot in the Temple, that the Kohanim have a collective responsibility to ensure that the sacrifices are brought and that the meat is eaten, we can understand Rava’s statement that this mitzvah does not override a negative prohibition. Normally the principle of aseh doche lo ta’aseh applies when I have a personal obligation. Because I must do this act, I am allowed to do it even in the face of certain obstacles. For example, if I have a linen garment, and, according to halakha, the only way I can do the mitzvah of techelet in my tzitzit strands is by using wool strands, then my obligation to put on the tzitzit allows me – compels me – to do it even in face of this obstacle, this prohibition. But if it is not my mitzvah – if it is a collective responsibility, then there is nothing that mandates that I, personally, do it. Because I am not acting under personal obligation, I have no mandate and no license to transgress the negative mitzvah. Thus, it is better that the meat not be eaten, and that no one violate the negative commandment, then that an individual Kohen eats the meat and violates the prohibition without license.
[It should be noted, of course, that the times when we apply the principle of aseh dokhe lo ta’aseh are very rare, and are first and foremost limited to cases where it is only a simple negative prohibition, without the more severe punishments and without accompanying positive mitzvot, and it is only when there is no other way to do the positive mitzvah, and it is only when the negative mitzvah is transgressed at the moment of fulfilling the positive mitzvah. In short, please do not try this at home without consulting your local posek.]
Of course, this idea can be abused. The problem with collective responsibility is that no one feels personally responsible and thus the job never gets done. This problem is expressed in the pithy phrase of the Gemara: “A pot watched by committee doesn’t get hot enough but doesn’t get cold.” This is also why in some communities it can be hard to get a minyan. Everyone assumes that some else will be there. It is critical that individuals take their degree of responsibility even for communal responsibilities, but often such communal goals can only be achieved by assigning one person with the personal responsibility to make sure that everyone participates so that the job gets done.
While communal responsibilities can lead to a shirking of responsibility, the message of the Gemara Zevachim is that we have to be sensitive to cases when something is not for us, specifically, to do. There are times when we need to step back, to allow others to do it, especially if our doing it would mean a violation or a shirking of another responsibility. This balance emerges from the Gemara in Kiddushin (32a) that discusses whether honoring one’s father or mother should take precedence over another mitzvah. Issi ben Yehuda states that it depends on whether the other mitzvah can be done by someone else. If it cannot, then you need to attend to this mitzvah. However, if it can, then step back and let someone else do it, and you do your mitzvah of honoring your parents. To do this other mitzvah would be to shirk your responsibility to your parents. This other mitzvah is not yours personally to do, so let someone else do it.
Such is the case with communal, distributed responsibilities. However, the opposite is the case with personal responsibilities, or by communal responsibilities that no one else is able to do. Consider a case of someone needing a bone marrow transplant, and a certain person is the only potential donor. Or someone needing surgery, and only one doctor can perform it. While these are cases of communal responsibilities, they transform into personal responsibilities when no one else is available. Such is the case that is discussed in Zevachim 100a. The Gemara quotes a braitta (Semachot, ch. 4) in the name of R. Akiva regarding a corpse that no one is attending to – what is called a met mitzvah. In such a case, says R. Akiva, if no one is attending to it, and you can attend to it, the obligation to bury this corpse becomes yours, and you must do it despite any obstacles. Even if you are a Kohen Gadol, and a nazir – both of whom are not allowed to become tamei, ritually impure, even to their relatives – and you are going to bring your korban Pesach – which you won’t be able to do if you become tamei, even in this case, if there is no one else to attend to this met mitzvah, you must become tamei and bury this body.
Such is the weight of what has become your personal obligation – when it is not just to do a mitzvah, but to ensure that this societal need is addressed, that this person is buried properly – such is its weight that it can override so many obstacles. Even when something has become your responsibility de facto, not because it started as yours but because others are neglecting their responsibility, even in such a case, you must recognize that it is now for you alone to do this important task, and that you must make sure that it gets done at all costs.
This was the example that my wife’s grandfather, Leo Hack z”l, who passed away recently, set with his life. He saw the metei mitzvah in the Jewish community that no one was caring about, that no one was attending to, and he understood that although no one chose or elected him for the task, it had become his responsibility to ensure that all these people were given a proper Jewish burial. Let us all strive to learn from this model, to find those areas of our life where we see a problem that no one is taking care of, that de facto has become our responsibility, and do everything in our power to make sure that we take on this task, that we do what we can to fix the problem, that we leave this world a better place than we found it.