Parshat Shemini (Leviticus 9:1 – 11:47)

By Rabbi Shlomo Riskin

Efrat, Israel –  “And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed (the two sons of Aaron) and they died before the Lord” (Leviticus 10:2)

 the celebration of the dedication of the Sanctuary .  Aaron’s greatest triumphs turned tragedy.  And one of the deepest Biblical mysteries is the reason why God Himself sent down a fire to consume them. Why?

The Midrash (VaYikrah Rabbah 12,1) attempts to provide an explanation:

“It seems impossible to understand why God would have caused them to die.  And then comes the explanation in the verse which appears immediately after this incident ; ‘And the Lord said to Aaron saying, do not drink wine or mead, neither you nor your sons with you, when you enter into the Tent of Meeting so that you do not die. It is an eternal statutes for your generations so that you may distinguish between the holy and the profane, between the impure and the pure’”

Apparently the Midrash is teaching that Nadav and Avihu were given this capital punishment because they had brought a fire unto God which had not been commanded while having become intoxicated with wine.  From this perspective, wine – which removes the ability of the individual to distinguish between the Holy and the profane, between the pure and the impure – can lead to evil action and can bring about tragic consequences.  And indeed at least according to one Rabbi Meir’s view in the Talmud (B.T. Sanhedrin 70A, 70B), “The fruit from which Adam ate was the fruit of the vine because there is nothing which brings greater woe to the individual than wine”.  And of course it was Noah’s planting of the vineyards which caused him to become drunk; The Midrash even goes so far as to suggest that Satan was Noah’s partner and convinced him to plant a vineyard and drink from its fruit.

At the same time however we have just concluded the festival of Passover who’s first Seder night is punctuated by four cups of the wine which symbolizes redemption. The Talmud goes on to teach “There is no joy without wine since ‘wine gladdens the heart of humanity’”(B.T. Pesahim 109A).  And further enjoins that we ‘Remember (the Sabbath day) on wine’ both at the inception of the Sabbath day by means of the Kiddush and at the closing of the Sabbath day by means of Havdallah.  Is it not strange that the very wine which has the capability of causing forgetfulness and debauchery drunkenness can also be used as a means towards understanding and distinguishing.  After all the very reference to Havdallah (separation between the Holy and the profane) is placed in the blessing in which we ask God to provide us with understanding and the ability to distinguish.  In the words of our Sages, “If there is no knowledge how is it possible to distinguish between night and day, the Sabbath and the rest of the week, the holy and the profane.  And the blessing of Havdallah is specifically recited over wine!

The Talmud links wine with the hebrew word Tirosh which is usually translated as grape; the hebrew Rosh means head and the hebrew Rash means poverty.  If the individual who drinks the wine has merit, he will become a head; if not he will become a pauper.  Wine therefore can lead the individual in two very opposite and even antithetical directions.  It depends on the individual drinking the wine. 

Maimonides, who first establishes the fact that the joy of the festival must be expressed through meat and wine, goes on to distinguish between drunken frivolity and joyous festivity “Drunkenness and much frivolity and levity is not rejoicing but is foolish hooliganism”.  We were not commanded to be foolish hooligans but rather to be joyous servant in the service of the creator of all things.  The Bible even states that “curses will come upon us because ‘you did not serve the Lord your God in joyousness and good heartedness”.(Maimonides Chapter 6 of Laws of the Festival Law 20)

And later on, at the end of his Laws of the Lulav (8:15) “the joy with which the individual must rejoice is by means of the doing of the commandments and loving the Lord; such joy is a great act of divine service”.

Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik magnificently explains that the more energy the human being expends, the greater will be the sanctity and the deeper will be the joy.  Ordinary juice is extracted from the fruit merely by squeezing it, wine is produced by the vine only by a long and arduous process, and therefore wine demands a separate and unique blessing.  Apparently Nadav and Avihu, at least according to the Midrash we cited previously, went into the Tent of Meeting of the Sanctuary having already been intoxicated “You shall not drink wine or mead when you come into the Tent of Meeting” (VaYikrah Rabbah 12,1 ) The Sabbath wine on the other hand is a very different experience.  We are commanded to “make ( Laasot)” the Sabbath, and when we hold aloft the wine goblet of Havdallah it is after we have spent at least most of Friday in preparation for the holy day.  Wine which is drunk before one has expended energy and accomplished an ideal will lead to drunkenness; only wine which comes to express an inerstate of sanctity and accomplishment as a result of successful human effort will lead to great joy.  In the words of one of my great teachers Rav Poleyoff :’ If you are empty inside and expect the wine to put in the joy, the wine will only lead to forgetfulness and drunkenness; but if you are filled inside with a deep sense of self worth and accomplishment – and you see the wine as an expression of your own state of human happiness – then the wine will lead to true rejoicing, sanctity and remembrance of the Divine


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