Parashat Shmini: The joy and tragedy of drinking

One of the greatest tragedies in the Bible the death of Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron the High Priest, on the day the Sanctuary was dedicated. Why did God send the fire?

"And fire came out from before the Lord and consumed [the two sons of Aaron], and they died before the Lord" (Leviticus 10). One of the greatest tragedies in the Bible the death of Nadab and Abihu, the two sons of Aaron the High Priest, on the day the Sanctuary was dedicated. Why did God send the fire? The Midrash says that "it seems impossible to understand why God caused them to die. And then comes the explanation in the verse which appears immediately after this incident: 'And the Lord said to Aaron, do not drink wine or mead, neither you nor your sons with you, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, so that you do not die. It is an eternal statute for your generations, so that you may distinguish between holy and profane, impure and pure.'" Apparently the Midrash is teaching that Nadab and Abihu were executed because, while intoxicated, they brought fire unto God which had not been commanded. From this perspective, wine - which removes the ability to distinguish between holy and profane, pure and impure - can bring tragic consequences. Indeed, at least according to Rabbi Meir (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 it was Noah's planting of a vineyard which led him to become drunk; the Midrash goes so far as to suggest that Satan convinced him to plant it and drink from its fruit. At the same time, however, we have just concluded the Seder, with its four cups of wine symbolizing redemption. The Talmud goes on to teach: "There is no joy without wine, since 'wine gladdens the heart of humanity' "(B.T. Pessahim 109a). And it further enjoins us to "Remember [the Sabbath day] on wine" - both at its inception by means of Kiddush and at its closing by means of Havdala. Isn't it strange that the very wine which has the capability of causing debauchery can also boost understanding and discernment? After all, the very reference to havdala (separation between holy and profane) is part of 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 Havdala is specifically recited over wine! The Talmud links wine with the Hebrew word tirosh, which is usually translated as grape; rosh means head and rash means poverty. If the drinker has merit, he will become a "head"; if not, he will become a "pauper." It depends on the person. Maimonides, who first establishes that the joy of a festival must be expressed via 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 hooligans, but rather to be joyous servants of the Creator. The Bible states that "curses will come upon us because 'you did not serve the Lord your God in joyousness and good heartedness'" (Maimonides Laws of the Festival). And later on, at the end of his Laws of the Lulav (8:15) we read, "…the joy with which individuals must rejoice is by means of doing the commandments and loving the Lord; such joy is a great act of divine service." Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik explains that the more energy a human being expends in the pursuit of holiness, the greater will be the sanctity and the deeper the joy. Ordinary juice is extracted merely by squeezing; wine is produced only by a long and arduous process, and therefore it demands a separate blessing. Apparently Nadab and Abihu, at least according to the Midrash cited previously, went into the Tent of Meeting already intoxicated: "You shall not drink wine or mead when you come into the Tent of Meeting" (Vayikra Rabba 12:1) Shabbat wine, on the other hand, is a very different experience. We are commanded to "make" Shabbat, and when we hold aloft the goblet to make kiddush, it is after spending most of the day preparing. Wine drunk before one has expended energy in pursuit of an ideal will lead to drunkenness; only wine which comes to express an inner state of accomplishment will lead to joy. In the words of one of my great teachers, Rabbi Poleyoff: "If you are empty inside and expect the wine to put in the joy, it will lead only to forgetfulness and drunkenness. But if you are filled with a deep sense of self worth and accomplishment, and see the wine as an expression of your own happiness, then it will lead to true rejoicing, and remembrance of the Divine." The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.