“Substance Abuse in Judaism”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, Parashat Shemini, opens with the majestic ceremony marking the consecration of Aaron and his sons as Kohanim, as priests. This ceremony took place on the first day of Nissan, which was the eighth and final day of the inauguration of the newly erected Tabernacle.

This day was, particularly for Aaron, the day for which he had waited his whole life. He had suffered through the travails of leadership in Egypt during the enslavement period. He had helped Moshe bring the ten plagues, resulting in the people’s Exodus from Egypt. Aaron also tried unsuccessfully to dissuade the people from worshiping the Golden Calf. And now, finally, after all the work, all the effort, and all the grief, Aaron was going to be sanctified by G-d to serve as the High Priest of Israel. And even more, his four sons were going to serve along at his side.

The Torah tells us in Leviticus 10:1, “Va’yik’choo v’nai Aharon, Nadav Va’Avihu, eesh mach’ta’to, v’yitnu va’hain aish, va’ya’simu ah’leh’ha k’toret, va’yakrivu li’fnei Ha’shem aish zara, asher lo tzi’vah ot’am,” And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took their fire pan and placed fire on it, and they placed incense on the pan and sacrificed the incense before G-d with a strange fire which G-d had not commanded them. At that moment, in the middle of this resplendent consecration ceremony, a Divine fire comes and kills two of Aaron’s four sons, Nadav and Avihu.

Leviticus 10:3 describes how Moshe tries to console his brother upon the death of his two sons by saying that this is what G-d meant when He said: “Bik’rovai eh’kadaish,” I shall be sanctified with those who are nigh to me, as if to say that in their death, G-d had sanctified the boys. Aaron’s reaction to all this is: “Va’yidom Aaron,” total silence!

The portion concerning the deaths of Aaron’s sons is followed by laws regarding the limitations of priestly mourning. That portion is followed by the Torah’s instructions to Aaron and his sons that priests are forbidden to drink wine when they perform in the Temple service.

While the deaths of Nadav and Avihu were a tragedy for the Jewish people, their demise was truly heartbreaking for their father Aaron. He had prayed for this very day his whole life, and at the highest moment of personal joy, he suffers this profound and wrenching loss from which he is unlikely to recover. Nevertheless, his reaction is silence, probably because there really is nothing meaningful that can be said by a parent or to a parent who loses a child.

The rabbis provide a host of speculative reasons concerning the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Perhaps, say the rabbis, these boys were arrogant and irreverent on Mt. Sinai, at a time which demanded uncompromised reverence. Perhaps it was because they brought a strange fire, not from the altar. Could it be because they didn’t use the vessels of the Beit Hamikdash, of the sanctuary, and instead brought (as is suggested by the language of the verse) their own fire pans? There are even those who say that Nadav and Avihu refused to marry and have children because they felt that no woman was good enough for them. Some rabbis suggest that Nadav and Avihu showed a lack of respect for Moshe and Aaron, and would often say: “When will these old fellows die so that we may take control of the community?”

On the other hand, there are those who say that Nadav and Avihu were truly righteous, in fact, this was their only offense. Despite the fact that they meant well, their actions were wrong, and they were punished for them. The fact that the Torah emphasizes aish zarah, a strange fire, indicates that they were guilty of nothing else. Other commentators say that though they used the wrong means to bring down the Divine Presence, their motives were noble, inspired by love and joy. Even their punishment implies that they had attained a high spiritual level, and that is why G-d slew them with a pure fire, leaving their clothing intact, and G-d grieved over them more than Aaron did.

Despite the wide range of interpretations, the most popularly accepted reason for the death of Nadav and Avihu is that they were drunk. This may be because of the sudden juxtaposition of the prohibition cited in Leviticus 10:8-11 concerning the priests not drinking intoxicants before they perform the service in the Temple. While on duty, priests are strictly prohibited from drink.

Perhaps we can glean from this tragic account of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu something about the Jewish attitude towards intoxicants and drugs. In the Book of Numbers, Chapt. 6, the Bible speaks of people called Nazarites, who dedicate themselves fully to G-d: they refuse to cut their hair, avoid contamination with the dead, and abstain from drinking wine. The mighty Samson, for instance, was a Nazarite.

With the exception of mourners at the most intense stage of mourning, the case of the Nazarite is the only instance in Jewish law where drinking is prohibited. Otherwise, drinking is considered normal and proper in Jewish life. “Ki yayin y’samach l’vav enosh,” after all, wine cheers the hearts of men, we read in Psalms 104:15.

Wine, of course, plays a key role in the rituals of Judaism. Wine is used in the Kiddush, the sanctification prayer on Shabbat and holidays, for Havdalah, the closing Shabbat and festival ritual, and of course, at the Jewish marriage ceremony. An intensive study of the question of Jewish intoxication indicates that Jews drink about as much as non-Jews and that they are subject to the same vagaries as all drinkers of intoxicants in the United States. What is unusual, is that the study indicates that those who are involved in Jewish life on a regular basis, that is those who adopt traditional Jewish customs and the value system associated with Jewish tradition, are not subject to intoxication as are those who have abandoned tradition. For the traditionalists, a moderate amount of wine is drunk at Kiddush both on Friday night and Saturday morning. Wine, then, never becomes a forbidden substance, and is therefore usually drunk in moderation in most Jewish homes that have these rituals. Among secular Jews, however, who have given up the value system associated with traditional customs, the incidence of intoxication is significant.

As regular readers know, I’ve written many times, that American Jews are highly subject to the vagaries and blandishments of the United States of America, and that abuse of alcohol and drugs is certainly on the rise. Traditional Jews don’t hide intoxicants from the little children, instead they teach them about the use of these substances in a socially acceptable way, which has proven to be quite effective. Even on the festive holiday of Purim, which we recently celebrated, the Talmud tells us that a person is required to drink until he doesn’t know the difference between Haman and Mordechai, “Ad d’lo yada,” which indicates that we may not drink beyond the point where we no longer know the difference between Haman and Mordechai.

Alcoholism and drug abuse is serious business, it is not something that we may ignore. When the problem is not properly addressed, the entire community pays a steep price. We need to make sure that our festivals and our celebrations and our inaugurations are not marred by these unacceptable practices. Wine is a Divine gift which plays a key role in Judaism. We must be certain that it is used as a gift, and not abused.

May you be blessed.