Fatal Alcohol (Shmini)

Fatal Alcohol (Shmini)

All excess is ill, but drunkenness is of the worst sort. It spoils health, dismounts the mind, and unmans men. It reveals secrets, is quarrelsome, lascivious, impudent, dangerous and bad. -William Penn

Two sons of Aaron the High Priest, Nadav and Avihu, die in a consecration ritual gone awry. They offer unauthorized fire in the Tabernacle and are instantly killed by a fire sent by God. Immediately after this horrific scene of death the Torah commands Aaron and his remaining sons to refrain from drinking wine or strong drink while serving in the Tabernacle, lest they die. Many commentators point at this command as the unspoken reason why Nadav and Avihu were killed. They had entered the Tabernacle drunk.

Rabbeinu Bechaye on Leviticus 10:9 (Shmini) expands on the dangers of alcohol. The first danger that directly affects the priestly service is that drunkenness prevents a person from distinguishing between what is holy and what is mundane. A drunk cannot differentiate between the sacred and the profane – a vital skill in any holy work.

Additionally, he states three other outcomes of drinking too much alcohol that are alluded to in the verse: drowsiness, arrogance and confusion. Alcohol causes “warm and humid vapors” to rise to the brain, causing sleep, which one is expressly forbidden to do in the Tabernacle.

Alcohol also “heats the forces of the heart,” leading to an inflated ego, namely arrogance, erasing any distinction between holy and mundane, making everything equal in his eyes, including the pure and the defiled.

Finally, the “vapors” that rise to the brain create a division between the brain and the other forces of the body, creating confusion and literally “mixing up of the brain.”

Rabbeinu Bechaye ends his discussion of the dangers of drinking by quoting King Solomon’s Proverbs that a drinker’s end is like a snake’s bite. The snake from the Garden of Eden was an enticer, who led humanity to death. It is the same with alcohol. It is seductive, but it is a poison that if mishandled can ultimately lead to ruin and death.

May we always drink responsibly and if we can’t, avoid it altogether.

Shabbat Shalom and Chag Sameach,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Alcoholics Anonymous.

 

Inversely Proportional Punishment

Inversely Proportional Punishment

Those who know the least obey the best. -George Farquhar

After the Revelation of the Ten Commandments at Mount Sinai, the consecration of the Tabernacle was meant to be the next high point of the sojourn of the Nation of Israel during their desert journey. This portable Temple with the concentrated presence of God amongst them, would accompany the young nation, keeping God ever close.

But amidst the induction of Aaron and his sons as the Kohens, the priestly caste; amidst the festivities, the sacrifices, the rituals and the celebrations – something goes horribly wrong.

Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s two older sons, decide, on their own initiative, to introduce a “strange” fire to the proceedings. This uncommanded change to the day’s ritual was met with immediate and devastating results. A fire from the heavens immediately descends and kills Nadav and Avihu instantly.

Commentators offer a range of explanations as to what exactly was the sin of Nadav and Avihu and why they deserved what on the surface appears to be a wildly disproportional punishment for what we might think was a minor infraction at worst.

Rabbi Hirsch on Leviticus 10:3 interprets the event as clearly an error on the part of Nadav and Avihu and learns something as to God’s view of moral responsibility, obedience and punishment based on intellectual capacity:

“God says: ‘The more a person stands out from among his people as a teacher and leader in relation to Me, the less will I show indulgence for his errors. Even by having him die I demonstrate that My will is absolute and that not even – indeed, least of all – those nearest to Me, the highest before Me, may permit themselves the slightest deviation from it. This will make the entire nation realize the full, solemn import of the obedience they owe Me.’ Seen in this light, these words of God should be sufficient consolation for Aaron, so that the text can indeed state: ‘And Aharon was silent.” Had his sons not been close to God, allowance might have been made for their aberration, and the Heavenly decree that overtook them might not have come to them as a warning of such solemn import for the entire nation. In sharpest divergence from the modern view, which regards intellectual attainments as a license for moral laxity and tends to make allowances for violators of God’s moral law if they happen to be men of intellect, Judaism postulates that the higher the intellect, the greater must be the moral demands placed upon it.”

Indeed, to paraphrase, borrowing a line from modern culture, we might say that, “With great intellectual power, comes great moral responsibility.”

May we harness our intellects and intelligence morally and not see it as an exemption from our many responsibilities to family, friends, community and society.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the Education Ministry’s Department for Evaluation of Foreign Academic Degrees. They demonstrated great intelligence and responsibility in evaluating my degrees.

Words of Grandeur

Words of Grandeur 

 By words the mind is winged. –Aristophanes

Talking

In a Kabbalistic view of the physical world, there are four categories in creation in ascending order of importance:

  1. “Domem” (literally “silent”) referring to inanimate objects, the earth, water, minerals, etc.
  2.  “Tzomeach” refers to things that grow, trees, flowers, grass, vegetation.
  3. “Chai” (literally “alive”) are animals.
  4. “Medaber” (“speaks”) are human beings that have the unique capacity of speech.

The Sfat Emet in 5634 (1874) states that humans are at the top of this existential pyramid, but only as long as they use proper speech, elevated speech, namely, words of Torah. This is particularly the case with the Children of Israel who received the Torah directly from God. The Sfat Emet claims that a person for whom words of Torah are not present in his dialogue, not only is he not using his divinely ordained capacity as intended, but he may even be lower than animals. The reason is that we would be abusing our gift of speech, the main thing that differentiates us from animals.

However, a person that does use words of Torah has the power to elevate all of creation, from the simplest pebble to the most sophisticated human and everything in between. Speech has a unique ability to connect heaven and earth, and to transcend the strictures of the physical and material and bind us to the spiritual and eternal.

May words of Torah – wise, sacred and kind – ever be on our lips.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, a fountain of words of Torah, on his receipt of the prestigious Templeton Prize.

 

Bugs in Paradise

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shmini-bugs-in-paradise/

Baal Haturim Leviticus: Shmini

Bugs in Paradise

picnic1We hope that, when the insects take over the world, they will remember with gratitude how we took them along on all our picnics. -Bill Vaughan

The laws of keeping Kosher can at times seem complex and involve much minutia. One can paint in broad strokes the basic laws: no mixing of meat and milk products, kosher mammals must have split hooves and chew their cud, they must be slaughtered and checked according to strict guidelines, kosher fish are only those that have scales and fins, and a few other fundamental guidelines.

However, matters get interesting when we start mixing things, when we deal with modern manufacturing processes, when there are doubts and uncertainty about what exactly we are eating. Then the Rabbis in all their glory attack the subject matter with encyclopedias worth of details, arguments, counter-arguments, decisions and responsa.

One interesting detail is that in some mixtures a rule of thumb is that if there is less than one sixtieth of the offending substance in the mixture (which is not a lot), the entirety of the mixture is permissible to eat. However, a curious exception is bugs. Any food or mixture of food that has even a tiny bug makes that food prohibited.

The Baal Haturim on Leviticus 11:29 adds an unexpected explanation as to why. He writes that snakes are included in the group of insects, bugs and general “creepy crawlies” (sheretz is the exact Hebrew word) that are prohibited. And because the snake is considered so repulsive we can’t allow any of it, not even a little bit, no matter how big whatever it’s swallowed into is, to be consumed. The snake implicates all other bugs in this prohibition, making life more challenging for all those people checking for bugs in the food we eat, but ostensibly also making it better to eat.

May we stay clear of bugs and snakes in our lives and in our food.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To all those who were so careful to avoid chametz (unleavened bread) throughout Pesach.

 

 

Scheduling Joy

First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shmini-scheduling-joy/

Netziv Leviticus: Shmini

Scheduling Joy

“Tranquil pleasures last the longest; we are not fitted to bear the burden of great joys.” – Nevell Bovee

Weddings are generally happy events. The bride, groom and their families prepare for months, investing great time and money to ensure that every garment, dish, flower, tablecloth and picture will be to their and their guests’ liking.

There is joy, dancing and merriment. It is thought to be among the happiest moments of the couple’s life. The Netziv on Leviticus 9:1 throws cold water on that concept. He comes to his conclusion from the Jewish experience upon receiving God’s law.

When the Jewish people receive the Torah on Mount Sinai, there is fire, lightning, trumpet blasts – a bright and loud show. Only when the Tablets that Moses brought from Sinai are placed in their permanent home, in the Tabernacle, do we see the Jewish nation celebrating and feasting.

The Netziv compares the event at Mount Sinai to the wedding night. There is excitement, perhaps even giddiness, but the bride and groom are too nervous, too anxious to truly experience joy. When the Tablets are placed in the Tabernacle is when the bride and groom come home. Only at home can they truly celebrate. Only at home can they truly experience a serious, tranquil, long-lasting joy.

May joy always be a part of our lives.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To those that invest time and money in after the wedding.

“Don’t Lecture Me…”

[First posted on The Times of Israel at: http://blogs.timesofisrael.com/shmini-dont-lecture-me/]

Ibn Ezra Leviticus: Shmini

“Don’t Lecture Me…”

“What you dislike in another take care to correct in yourself.” -Thomas Sprat

In Jewish tradition, the High Priest is granted a spectrum of ritual powers and responsibilities. One of the many curious ones is the ability, through animal sacrifice, to beseech for divine atonement for the nation of Israel.

However, before the High Priest brings this powerful sacrifice that has the ability to achieve forgiveness for the multitude of Israel, he is first directed to bring a personal atonement sacrifice.

Ibn Ezra on Leviticus 9:7 explains that the High Priest needs to attain personal redemption first, before he can dare intermediate in the atonement of anyone else. One can’t expect a person guilty of a certain sin to be successful in freeing someone else of their spiritual blotch while he is still mired in the same problem. The potential penitent would scoff at such hypocritical preaching.

We need to clean our side of the street before we dare lecture anyone else about theirs.

Shabbat Shalom,

Ben-Tzion

Dedication

To the various role models who have indeed straightened out their acts and inspire us by example.