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Circumstantial behavior
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Circumstantial behavior

Shemini — Leviticus 9:1-11:47

At the center of this week’s parsha is the strange episode of Nadav and Avihu, the two older sons of Aaron. The Torah says, “And they offered before the Lord alien fire which He had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died before the Lord.”

At the conclusion of the eight-day ceremony of installation of Aaron and his sons as kohanim, priests, Nadav and Avihu offer eish zarah, alien fire, and are killed for it. It’s puzzling at best.

The rabbis, of course, rush to point out the brothers’ sin, examining the surrounding text to find out what they had done that warranted such a drastic punishment, for surely God would not punish them without good reason.

One explanation is that when they approached the altar to make their offering, they were drunk. How do we know? Because immediately following this episode the Torah says, “And the Lord spoke to Aaron saying: Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die.” Nadav and Avihu died, so they must have been drunk.

So is the Torah’s message here that we should avoid alcohol? Hardly. After all, we usher in each Shabbat and yom tov with Kiddush said over wine, we drink four cups of wine at the seder, and on Purim we are expected to drink until we don’t know the difference between baruch Mordechai (blessed be Mordechai) and arur Haman (cursed be Haman).

The Torah’s point is more subtle. A colleague tells the story of his first interview for a rabbinic position. On the Saturday evening of his weekend visit to the community, there was a gathering at a member’s home. Believing it was a social event, the rabbi accepted a glass of Scotch. Soon after he finished his drink, the shul members sat down and began to ask him more questions, continuing the interview. Needless to say, he didn’t get the job.

The point is not that you shouldn’t drink, but that you shouldn’t drink when you have work to do, when you have responsibilities to discharge — whether those responsibilities are offering sacrifices on the altar or being interviewed for a job, writing a report or taking care of children, or, as too many people have yet to learn, driving a car.

In many ways, it would be much easier if the Torah simply said, “no alcohol, period.” (It might not be easier to obey, but it would surely be easier to understand.) Absolutes offer the advantage of simplicity.

The Torah contains many such laws. This week’s parsha also contains the basic laws of kashrut, and they are pretty straightforward. Here are the animals you may not eat — no pig, no camel, no lobster, no eagle, no mouse (okay, you probably wouldn’t want some of them anyway.) There are exceptions; you can eat forbidden foods, for example, if the alternative is death by starvation, but by and large the kashrut laws are simple.

But like the commandment that forbids the kohanim to consume alcohol before they enter the sanctuary to perform priestly functions, there are also many laws that depend on circumstances.

  • Should you always tell the truth? Sometimes even God tells a “white lie.”
  • Does honoring your parents mean you are required to follow their wishes? It depends on what they ask you to do.
  • Is abortion permitted? In some circumstances, yes; in others, no.

Like drinking alcohol, what we do about money, food, work, sex, and so many other things depends on the circumstances. That’s the hard part. We’re human and therefore adept at rationalization — we convince ourselves that what we want to do is what we should do.

But God’s charge to Aaron suggests more objective standards. Responsibilities to God and to other people come first. Only then are you permitted to indulge yourself.

We usher in Shabbat and yom tov with wine because we have fulfilled our responsibilities — work is done, we have met our obligation to God by attending services, and now we have time for ourselves and our loved ones.

Absolutes are easy. Determining the right thing to do in different circumstances is hard, for we are complex creatures in multi-faceted relationships with God and with each other. But would we really want it any other way?

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