“Using, Not Abusing, a Sanctified Substance”

by Rabbi Ephraim Z. Buchwald

This coming week’s parasha, Parashat Shemini, opens on the eighth and final day of the inauguration of the newly erected Tabernacle. The calendar date is the first of Nissan, the day that Aaron and his sons were to be consecrated as priests–Kohanim.

This day, for Aaron, was the day for which he had dreamed his entire life. Aaron’s life had not been easy. Alone, he had suffered through the travails of leadership in Egypt during the early days of the enslavement period. He had served faithfully at Moses’s side, confronting Pharaoh and demanding that the Israelites be allowed to leave Egypt to worship for three days. He tried unsuccessfully to dissuade the newly freed people from worshiping the Golden Calf. And now, finally, after all his efforts and all the grief, Aaron was to be dedicated as the High Priest of Israel. And even more satisfying, was the fact that his four sons were going to serve alongside him.

While describing the consecration ceremony, the Torah tells us in Leviticus 10:1, “Va’yik’chu v’nai Aharon, Nadav Va’Aveehu, eesh mach’tah’to, vah’yitnu vah’hen aish, vah’yah’seemu ah’leh’ha k’to’ret, vah’yak’reevu lif’nay Ha’shem aish zara, asher lo tzee’vah oh’tam,” And the sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, each took their fire pan and placed fire on it, and placed incense on the pan and sacrificed the incense before G-d with a strange fire which G-d had not commanded. Suddenly, in the midst of the consecration ceremony, a fire comes forth from G-d and consumes Nadav and Avihu.

Moses tries to console his brother concerning the young mens’ death, telling Aaron that what G-d meant when He said: “Bik’ro’vie eh’kah’daysh,” I shall be sanctified with those who are nigh to Me, is that through death, G-d had sanctified and elevated Nadav and Avihu. The young mens’ bodies were removed from the Tabernacle, and Aaron’s reaction to the tragedy is then recorded (Leviticus 10:3): “Va’yidom Aaron”–total silence.

Immediately following the death of Aaron’s sons, the Torah instructs the remaining children of Aaron regarding the limitations of priestly mourning. This instruction is then followed by the law prohibiting priests to be in a state of inebriation when performing the sacred service.

While the deaths of Nadav and Avihu were a tragedy for the entire Jewish nation, it was truly heartbreaking for their father, Aaron. At the moment of his highest joy, he loses two of his precious sons. Nevertheless, his reaction is silence, probably because there really is nothing that can be said by a parent or to a parent who loses a child.

The rabbis, who are perplexed by the lack of clarity regarding the cause of this tragedy, provide a host of reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. Perhaps, say the rabbis, the boys were among those who were arrogant and irreverent on Sinai (Exodus 24:11). Perhaps it was because they brought a strange fire, not from the altar. Could it be that instead of using the vessels of the Tabernacle (as suggested by the language of the verse), they brought their own fire pans? There are even commentators who suggest that the sin of Nadav and Avihu was that they refused to marry and have children because they felt that no woman was good enough for them. Some rabbis say that Nadav and Avihu showed a lack of respect for Moses and Aaron, even saying publicly: “When will these old fellows die, so that we may take control of the community?”

Other commentators disagree strongly, saying that there is no evidence to support the claim that Nadav and Avihu were sinful. To the contrary, they argue that Nadav and Avihu were exceedingly righteous. The fact that the Torah emphasizes that they brought an aish zarah, a strange fire, indicates that they were entirely pure and guilty of nothing else. Other commentators say that though they used the wrong means to bring the Divine Presence into the Tabernacle, their motives were noble, and inspired by love and joy. Even their punishment implies that they had attained a high spiritual level. That is why G-d slew them with a pure fire, their clothes remaining intact. In fact, suggest the rabbis, the Al-mighty grieved over Nadav and Avihu more than their own father, Aaron.

Whatever the reason for the deaths of the two young men, the juxtaposition of Leviticus 10:8-11 concerning priests not drinking intoxicants before they perform the service in the Temple, establishes the prohibition of drinking at the forefront of the reasons for the deaths of Nadav and Avihu. While on duty, priests are strictly prohibited from drink.

The severe punishment meted out to the sons of Aaron leaves us with cogent reason to carefully study the Jewish attitude towards intoxicants and drugs. In Numbers 6, the Bible teaches about Nazarites, people who dedicate themselves to G-d by refusing to cut their hair, not coming in contact with the dead, and abstaining from drinking wine. The mighty Samson and the Prophet Samuel, were two of the most noted Nazarites.

The case of the Nazarite is the only case in the Bible where drinking is prohibited. Otherwise, drinking is considered normal and proper in Jewish life. In fact the Psalmist writes in Psalm 104:15: “V’yayin y’samach l’vav enosh,” that wine cheers the hearts of men.

Wine, of course, plays a key role in the rituals of Judaism. Wine is used in the sanctification of the Sabbath and the Holiday Kiddush, at Havdalah–the closing Shabbat and Holiday service, and, of course, during the marriage ceremony.

Studies of Jewish intoxication indicate that Jews drink about as much as non-Jews, and are subject to the same vagaries as all drinkers of intoxicants in the United States. What is unusual is that the studies indicate that those who are involved in Jewish life on a regular basis, those who adopt the traditional customs and values associated with Jewish tradition, are not subject to intoxication to the same extent as those who have abandoned tradition. For the traditionalists, a moderate amount of wine is drunk at Kiddush both on Friday night and Saturday morning. Hence, wine never becomes the forbidden fruit, and is therefore 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 alcohol abuse is more significant.

A paraphrase of the German quip, “Wie est sich christelt, so judelt sich”--as the Christians–so the Jews, very well describes the current Jewish community’s situation with respect to alcohol and drug abuse. Jews are subject to the same blandishments and temptations of the general populace, and abuse of alcohol and drugs is clearly on the rise. The fact that in the Jewish community traditional Jews don’t hide or forbid intoxicants from their children, but instead teach them about it in a socially acceptable way, has proven to be quite effective. A good example of this is that on the festive holiday of Purim, which we recently observed, the Talmud (Megillah 7b) tells us that a person is required to drink “ad d’lo yada” until he doesn’t know the difference between Haman and Mordechai. But, 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 can be ignored. The Jewish community needs to make certain that our Sabbaths, festivals and celebrations are not marred by unacceptable practices of drinking. Wine is a divine gift, and plays a key role in Judaism. We need to make sure that it is treated with respect, and used as a special gift.

May you be blessed.