The weekly Torah portion and its lessons for all people

Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47
Sober Judgment

by Avraham ben Yaakov

Our portion tells the chilling story of the disaster that struck on the very day of one of the great summits of human history: the inauguration of the proto-Temple Sanctuary in the wilderness by Moses and Aaron.

"And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, each took his censer, and put fire in it and laid incense upon it, and offered strange fire before God, which He had not commanded them. And a fire came forth from before God and devoured them, and they died before God" (Leviticus 10:1-2).

The two crown princes of the priestly line of Aaron the High Priest had no children, and thus were extirpated in a moment. Directly after this terrible decree, God commanded Aaron:

"Drink no wine or strong drink, you and your surviving sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, in order that you should not die. And so that you may distinguish between the holy and the ordinary, and between the unclean and the clean; so that you may teach the Children of Israel all the statutes which God has told them through the hand of Moses." (Lev. 9:10-11).

The simple implication of the text is that the reason why Nadab and Abihu incurred this severest of penalties was because they were intoxicated when they made their offering. Wine or some other strong substance distorted their faculty of proper judgment, causing them to err gravely in determining what service God wanted from them. They offered "strange fire", eliciting God's consuming fire to destroy them.

The priests are the spiritual leaders of the community, with two main functions: (1) To offer the people's sacrifices (leadership in the aspect of prayer, our offerings to God); (2) To educate the people in God's Torah (the teachings God gives to us). Both functions involve intense concentration of the spiritual leaders' mental and all other faculties to ensure proper balanced focus on the task in hand, be it leading the people in prayer and devotion or providing sound guidance and true judgment.

Wine and other intoxicating substances simply interfere with a person's normal rational thinking and functioning, and can take them into delirious flights of fancy where they may be absolutely convinced that they are perfectly sane and focused. The first case of such intoxication in the Bible, which likewise had the severest consequences, was that of Noah, father of humanity, as told in Genesis 9:20-27. Clear understanding of the Torah view of intoxication is important to all people.

Physical substances

"Wine rejoices the heart of man" (Psalms 104:15): God has created wine and other varieties of amazing life-enhancers - including even coffee, tea and other herbs etc. - that when properly used in moderation at appropriate times may help temporarily lift the human heart out of the cyclical heaviness and depression to which so many are prone. There may be a place for some of the life-enhancing substances that exist in creation. But when it comes to our spiritual affairs - our prayers to God, our study of His Torah - and particularly when community leaders and governments must pass judgments on proper laws and their applications in actual life situations - the state of mind that is required is one of sobriety, level-headedness and clear judgment.

Mental poisons

This level-headedness is liable to be distorted not only by physical mind-changing substances but also by various kinds of insidious false beliefs that act as intoxicants which drive arrogant madmen and fanatics to justify and perpetrate murder, cruel abuse and other crimes against God and man through terrible errors of judgment.

The exact determination of what God wants of man depends upon exact interpretation of the Torah text and authentic traditions. The application of the law in actual cases requires the ability to make sense of many conflicting testimonies, claims and counterclaims based on people's divergent outlooks and worldviews and their accompanying narratives.

When making any kind of judgments about situations that are unclear, the common tendency is to liken elements in the situation to things that we are clear about. For example, we know that murder, theft and oppression are wrong. If we need to pass a judgment or make our own personal evaluation about a people or country accused of such crimes, we need to make a careful evaluation of all the arguments and evidence of all sides.


But just as on a dark night, a drunkard or drug-taker or even simply a frightened child may see a terrifying ogre lurching towards them when all that stands there is a great tree, likewise those who are intoxicated by false beliefs fueled by lies and slanders may see a given group, people or country as a terrible ogre when the truth is nothing of the kind.

Today's sophisticated mass media, concentrated in the hands of the world's power barons, are masters of the art of mental manipulation through spinning all their output and "information" in their own desired direction. All over the world in different ways, disinformation, subtle smears and slanders enter and intoxicate people's minds, attitudes and opinions, leading them in directions that are putting the future of humanity in dire peril.

One of the most widespread forms of distorted thinking resulting from the mental intoxication caused by poisonous lies and slanders is the kind of reasoning that says: "Mr. X committed a crime; Mr. X is a Teuton. Therefore all Teutons must be criminals." It is false deductions of this kind that historically have led to every kind of intergroup hatred and strife until today.

The grim story of the extirpation of Nadab and Abihu, sons of Aaron the High Priest, through intoxication teaches the extreme care needed to keep our mental faculties intact and balanced in life situations that require focus and clear judgment. Not only must dangerous mind-changing substances be rejected completely, but so must mind-shackling poisonous lies and slanders that have no less a power to lead people to the worst kinds of destruction.




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