Posts Tagged ‘Shemini’

Divine joy…

Sunday, April 4th, 2010

Shemini - Divine joy...
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Shemini: Leviticus 9:1-11:47

"Drink no wine nor strong drink." (Leviticus 10:9)

In this week’s portion, we have the rather disturbing event of the death of Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron, as they perform a sacrifice using "unfitting fire" which had not been commanded by God. No detail is given about what made the fire "unfitting," or whatever else may have been awry with their actions, but the penalty is swift and severe: "And fire came out from in front of the Lord and consumed them! And they died in front of the Lord." (Lev. 10:2)

What was their transgression? The Sages probed a number of possibilities: perhaps it was the nature of the fire: was it prepared improperly, according to another people’s rituals, thereby making it "unfitting?" Or perhaps the key is in the fact that it had not been "commanded:" an offering that would have been acceptable at a different time, but in this case at the wrong juncture. Others have suggested that it was not according to a prescribed formula (hearkening back to the "unfitting" issue), and thereby forbidden.

These interpretations have one thing in common: sacrifices must be offered in a precisely correct way, at the precisely correct time, in order to be acceptable. They do not allow for the spontaneity of offerings, something we as Jews have managed to embrace over time. So the Sages searched elsewhere for an explanation.

It happens that the next time in Torah that God speaks, it is to forbid the drinking of wine or beer by Aaron and his sons at the Tent of Meeting "so you won’t die" (Lev. 10:8). It is therefore not unreasonable to conclude that Nadab and Abihu’s crime was that they attempted to perform the sacred rituals while drunk. From this reasoning spring many midrashim, most of them railing against the abuses of alcohol. But consider this very different midrash from R. Aha; listen:

R. Aha said: There is a story of a man who kept on selling his household goods and drinking wine with the proceeds. Said his sons: ‘Our father will leave nothing for us.’ So they plied him with drink, and made him drunk, and took him out and placed him in a cemetery. Wine merchants passed the gate of the cemetery, and hearing that a seizure for public service was to take place in the province, they left their loads within the cemetery and went to witness the uproar in the province. The man, waking up from his sleep and seeing a skin bottle above his head, untied it and put it in his mouth. Three days later his sons said: ‘Should we not go to see what father is doing?’ They went and found him with the wine-skin in his mouth. They said: ‘Even here has your Creator not forsaken you. Seeing that He has given you wine, we do not know what we should do to you.’ They made an arrangement amongst themselves that the sons should in turn provide him with drink, one son one day.

Midrash Rabbah – Leviticus XII:1

What are we to learn from this curious midrash? Surely the Sages don’t want us to conclude that rampant, unconstrained drunkenness is a good thing?

The solution, I believe, lies in us looking to wine as the standard metaphor for joy, especially spiritual joy. With this "lens," the lesson shifts somewhat: a joyful encounter with God is more important than possessions, and if we are dedicated to this quest, this invigorated life of the spirit, then even those who place well-intended obstacles in our way can be overcome.

However, we cannot ignore the literal meaning of this midrash: unfettered imbibing in the pleasures of the flesh can lead us to a life where that joy is illusory, surrounded by death and the demise of those who care for us. Which interpretation is correct?

As is the hallmark of our heritage, we must find a way to make them both true: not one or the other, but some creative amalgam of the two. This comes, I believe, from the lesson of balance, and the challenges we face as we try to navigate in the worlds of spirit and substance. We must find the path that leads us to unbounded joy while leaving the wisdom of saying "no" to excesses intact; the path in which the energy of the Spirit moves us through the trials of the material world at just the right pace, neither so quickly that we float above matters of consequence nor so slowly that we sink into the mire.

May we each be blessed with the vision – and the community! – to help us maintain that balance, and the strength to lend a hand to others who occasionally lose theirs.