Thoughts for Sh’mini

This week we have a number of mitzvot/commandments in the sedra.  One of these, as titled in Sefer Hahinuch, is the prohibition ‘not to enter the tabernacle inebriated and not to instruct/decide matters of halacha inebriated.’  This is a commandment which, as we shall see, may be thought of on one level as a response to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.

I wish to be clear from the outset – Judaism neither promotes drinking alcohol, nor does it promote a teatotaller’s attitude.  (Never mind that maybe the caffeine in all that tea isn’t so good for you, either.)  We actually use alcohol in the form of wine for kiddush, and the four cups of wine at the seder, and other occasions.  Wine was poured on the altar as part of the sacrifices.

Yet, we see in this week’s reading that maybe alcohol can be an obstacle – or worse.  It seems a very conscious balance is required.

The Torah has a parsha of four verses that are of particular interest to us here.  ‘God spoke to Aharon saying do not drink wine or inebriating drink, you nor your sons with you, when you come to the Tent of Meeting, lest you die.  This is a law for all generations.  (This is so that you may) differentiate between the holy and the profane, the ‘clean’ and ‘unclean’, and that you may instruct the people of Israel all the laws that God spoke through Moshe.’

Rashi here notes that the warning is to not drink ‘in a drunken manner’.  Ramban points out that it is plausible that Nadav and Avihu made their fatal error because they were inebriated.  In this line, Ibn Ezra (or is it Abn Ezra?) generally remarks that alcohol ‘destroys one’s intellect, and confuses things’.  Sforno, quoting Hoshea 4:11, makes a similar point.  Hizkuni notes that it isn’t normal for a drunk person to worship (perform the Temple service).

In elaborating on the commandment mentioned above, the Hinuch says that the prohibition applies generally to all people.  It is, he says, disrespectful of the Temple.  By extension, we may say this is true of any place of worship or Torah study.  Interestingly, a Cohen need not even be discernably drunk to transgress this command.  As little as a ‘riviit’, approximately 4 ounces, of wine is enough to disqualify him from serving at the time in the Temple.

There are two essential functions here that the Torah says really cannot (must not!) be done while under the influence:  worship and deciding matters of halacha.  These are two of the critical foundations of Jewish life.  One cannot honestly worship and serve God while under the influence; and one cannot properly apply the Torah in practice without a clear mind.  From here we find rather clear restrictions on prayer while inebriated, and on a rav or beit din handing down decisions while inebriated.

This raises a question in my mind whose answer I haven’t sought, to be truthful.  What place, then, is there for alcohol in Jewish life?  Not only do we not find alcohol generally prohibited; our own eyes see that people drink a bit of wine or a l’chaim at the Shabbat table and other occasions.  It does seem very clear to me that the Torah’s idea of responsible drinking pretty clearly limits when it may occur.  Given that we pray three times a day, and learn Torah during the day and night; there are only some specific occasions when drinking alcohol would be appropriate.  Here I must note, too, that at any time it is simply not acceptable for a Jew to get embarrassingly drunk.  Such towering late halachic figures as the Aruch Hashulchan and the Hayei Adam note that even on Purim, when it is customary to drink alcohol, it is forbidden for one to become drunk in a manner that could lead to embarrassment of one’s self, or the Torah.

All this reminds me of two personal stories; one complementary, and one rather sad.  A few years back we had the good fortune to celebrate the inauguration of a new synagogue.  I had the particular blessing to carry the Torah scroll in.  Photos were taken, including one of me hugging the sefer Torah while dancing it in.  A fellow in the congregation commented on that photo that I was “drunk on the Torah.”  What a fine way to be drunk!  I hope his observation was correct.

The other incident occurred a few years ago on Simhat Torah.  There was much singing and dancing in the synagogue where I was, and their habit apparently was to drink quite a bit of vodka as well.  I don’t drink very much as it is (but I don’t abstain, either!); and I am of the opinion that one may not drink alcohol during or just before prayers.  Such is the case when the community still has to finish Torah reading and pray Mussaf on Simhat Torah.

One of the prominent fellows leading the celebration offered me some vodka several times.  Each time I refused, and went on celebrating the gift of Hashem’s Torah without getting drunk like many others there.  Finally this fellow commented to me, “I can’t believe you’re so leibedik and b’simha (celebrating and joyous) without drinking anything!”  My sad thought to this day is that is a pitiful state of affairs if we ever think we have to have alcohol to celebrate Hashem’s Torah.  Even sadder when that idea is promoted by rabbis and other leaders.  For those who want a l’chaim, I won’t criticize them.  But to think it is necessary, when the Torah here is telling us that one may not worship nor instruct in matters of Torah under the influence; that is a sad distortion.  Clearly the greatest spiritual heights can be reached without it, or it wouldn’t be forbidden for the Cohanim and Torah sages when they have to carry out their responsibilities.

Writing all this reminded me of the holy Rav Yehiel Michal Tukachinsky, the Gesher Hahaim.  When he was dying, his son relates, he had quite a bit of pain.  The doctors repeatedly offered him morphine for relief, but he refused it.  He said he wanted his mind clear for the holy transition from this world to the next.

May Hashem bless us with caution in our behavior and indulgences; and may He bless us that we can truly be drunk on his Torah alone.