Shemini 5769 – Gilayon #598


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Parshat Shmini

Do not drink wine that will lead to

intoxication, neither you nor your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of

Meeting, so that you shall not die. [This is] an eternal statute for your

generations.

(Vayikra 10:9)

 

Do not drink wine that will lead to

intoxication, etc. This commandment was mentioned here because

wine was created solely to comfort mourners (Eruvin 65a), and Aaron thought that he would at least be allowed to drink wine

while mourning. That is why he was instructed here that he was prohibited from

drinking wine to intoxication even while he mourned. Rashi explained the verse,

and Aaron kept silent, that as reward for this silence God told this to

him personally and to him alone, hinting that anyone who [has drunk so much

wine that he] cannot speak before a king is called intoxicated; that is why God

related this to him personally to tell him not to be so intoxicated that he cannot

speak before the King, but rather he should always be sufficiently sober that

he can respond [to the King]. That is the point of the verse, And the Lord

spoke to Aaron, saying [laymor], ending the whole

matter with laymor, to tell him that he must always be ready to laymor

[speak] and answer the King may He be blessed. He merited receiving all of this

command thanks to Aaron kept silent.

(Kli Yakar ad loc)

 

…this is not talking about complete intoxication, but rather about a

reasonable suspicion of blurred thinking. That is why one who drinks wine is

prohibited from serving in the Temple or teaching the Temple laws or Practical halakhah.

These are not matters for mental excitement and imagination; clear thinking, a

sharp mind, and sobriety are required for the performance of God's

commandments. The Temple's symbolism does not address the imagination but

rather the clear-thinking mind. Only a mind that can grasp things clearly,

derive correct conclusions, and fit every detail into its proper place in the

general framework – only such a mind can direct our steps towards the

realization of God's commandments in our deeds. Aaron's sons died because they

followed their hearts' excitement; this teaches all future priests and all

teachers of halakhah in Israel: See yourselves only as servants of the Temple

and as teachers and follower of Torah…one who teaches halakhah in Israel must

be a talmid hakham – a "wise student"

throughout his life.

 (Rabbi S.R. Hirsch, ad

loc)

 

What Kind of Religious

Innovation is Desirable?

Aviad Stolman

Our parasha describes the chilling deaths of Aaron's sons Nadav and

Avihu at a festive time, on the eighth day of the Tabernacle's opening

celebrations. The verses employed are curt, perhaps even poetic. They do not

supply much information regarding the event and its causes. Aaron's sons were severely

punished for what would seem to be a minor deviation from ritual protocol. This

prompts a question: what was the nature of the sin for which they were burned

to death? This questioned fired the imaginations of commentators and darshanim

who proposed a whole assortment of answers to it. So it goes: when Scripture

spares its words, the darshanim and commentators write at length, producing

mountains of possible readings, both plain and midrashic.

Some scholars sought indications of the sin's nature in the passage

itself, or at least in those adjacent to it. Accordingly, R. Yishmael raised

the possibility that Aaron's sons were drunk with wine when they entered the

Tabernacle. Others accused them of crimes which the Torah suggests would be

punished with death, such as entering the Tabernacle with unwashed hands and

feet, or performing the service while improperly dressed. Some go so far as to

hypothesize that their sin consisted of the sons not having children of their

own or that they had not married. Some pinned sins of another sort on them –

that they had taught halakhah in their teacher Moses' presence. Others claim

that they would say: "When will these two old men die so that I and you

can rule over the community?" Some say that when Aaron participated in the

sin of the Golden Calf, his sons' fates were sealed. And so the explanations go

on and on.

Despite all these, there seems to be no reason to go beyond the written

verse in our search for a rationale: the sons offered a strange fire to

God and were duly punished. This view is also supported by the other passages (Bamidbar 3:4; 27:61) that treat the sin of Nadav and Avihu. The

sin, then, consists of offering a strange fire – an action that simply

contradicted a commandment. Rabbi S.R. Hirsch offers an explanation along these

lines, relating it to his personal view of the Reform movement of his time:

There is nothing, there is no detail in the entire matter of the

sacrifices, that the worshiper has discretion to deal with by the light of his

own subjective taste… the nearness to God which the worshipper wishes to

achieve through sacrifice can only be gained by hearkening to God's voice, by

doing His will and accepting the yoke of His kingdom…The meaning of the Jew's

sacrifice is that he sacrifices himself together with the offering, offering

himself up to serve in God's presence and devoting his will to the will of his

Creator. Therefore, all the sacrifices are no more than formulations of the

Divine demands which the sacrificer takes upon himself by offering his

sacrifice… Accordingly, offerings which a person makes up by his own lights

destroy the truth. Sacrifice is meant to remove the worshiper from the realm of

human control, while sacrifices invented by human beings re-enthrone arbitrary

subjectivity which can only be deposed by obedience to the Holy One, blessed be

He… not by new and fashionable methods of worship, but through the

realization of his Creator's will…

Rabbi S. R. Hirsch's comments are reminiscent of the approaches taken by

two 20th century Orthodox thinkers: Prof. Yeshayahu Leibowitz and

Rabbi Joseph Dov Soloveitchik, both of whom emphasized the heteronomic aspect

of fulfilling the commandments. They felt that individual ritual inventiveness

not only lacks religious significance – they considered it to be absolutely

unacceptable. Service of God means precise and disciplined obedience to the

commands of Halakhah, free of any changes or innovations springing from some particular

religious world view.

This theological tendency – based upon a careful reading of Scripture – objects

to any religious innovation that does not derive from strict obedience to halakhah.

However, when reading further in the parasha we discover that the story of the

deaths of Nadav and Avihu offers only a partial view of this issue. Following

the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Moses instructs Aaron, Elazar, and Itamar as to

how they should deal with the various sacrifices. Meanwhile, Moses discovers that

the goat of the sin-offering has been burnt, upon which he complains to Elazar

and Itamar: Why did you not eat the sin offering in the holy place? For it

is holy of holies, and He has given it to you to gain forgiveness for the sin

of the community, to effect their atonement before the Lord! This shows us

that Aaron's remaining sons, Elazar and Itamar – and perhaps Aaron himself –

did not act in accordance with the divine command and instead decided on their

own that the sin-offering should be burned rather than eaten. Even after their

brothers' terrifying deaths, which apparently occurred because of a failure to

follow commands precisely, they allowed themselves to deviate from God's word

and act as they saw fit. What was their defense? But today, did they offer up their sin offering and their

burnt offering before the Lord? But [if tragic events] like these had befallen

me, and if I had eaten a sin offering today, would it have pleased the Lord? Surprisingly, Moses accepted Aaron's explanation: Moses heard [this], and it pleased him.

We find that Aaron, and even Moses himself, did not fear religious

innovation when it is motivated by concern for what "pleases the

Lord." Here we see that subjective halakhic considerations are not

completely objectionable, so long as they spring from pure motives. Sometimes

they can even be desirable. A similar argument was forwarded when Yeshayahu

Leibowitz explained his support for changes in the halakhic treatment of women.

In contrast to his rejection of changes made in the spirit of Reform, Leibowitz

supported changes concerning women, arguing that such changes aim at protecting

and preserving the halakhah in today's historical reality.

The above interpretations of two incidents reported in this week's

parasha hints at the constant tension between traditional and innovation,

between halakhic decisions based upon objective halakhic sources and decisions

based upon the subjective understanding of halakhah and reality. In recent

years people who study the philosophy of halakhah have discussed these tensions

often; however, they may also be discussed in terms of the incidents reported

in our parasha.

How did Nadav and Avihu's actions differ from those of Elazar and

Itamar? Moses' answer implies that Elazar and Itamar consulted with their

father before deciding that it would be preferable to burn the goat of the

sin-offering instead of eating it. This suggests that Nadav and Avihu rushed to

offer a strange fire, not taking time to ask their father about it. Their deed

was not rooted in deep thought; rather, it sprang from powerful emotions and

holy enthusiasm. Elazar and Itamar, in contrast, mulled over what to do with

the sin-offering and asked their father's advice in the matter. After careful

consideration they concluded that it was better to burn the offering than to

eat it. If this understanding is correct, the two deeds differ from each other

in that the one was emotional and the other rational.

The halakhic system – like any well-ordered system of law – lends those

responsible for making decisions sophisticated tools for integrating their

decisions into the system. This system serves as a check against actions that

may suit natural emotions but which are opposed to the spirit of the law. Every

page of Talmud expresses the traditional demand that halakhic decisions must be

tied to convincing arguments and that the halakhah gains its force from

coherent rationales. Halakhic discussions lend halakhah its objectivity. There

is a place and a need for subjective considerations, but they must pass through

the refining flame of halakhic argument.

From here we can continue to a third item in our parasha, which will

also link up with the discussion so far. I am referring to the twice-repeated

injunction: And you shall be holy – for I am holy. Man is called upon to

be holy because God Himself is holy: human beings are told to imitate God. In

his Mishneh Torah (Deot 1), RaMBaM

explains that imitation of God's actions means acting in a psychologically

balanced fashion. RaMBaM translated the Aristotelian insight of the

"golden mean" into halakhic terms: "We are commanded to walk in

these middle paths; they are the goodly and straight paths." And what is

the source for this commandment? "For it says and walk in His ways.

The interpretation of this commandment was understood thus: He is called gracious,

so be you also gracious: He is called merciful, so be you also merciful; He is

called holy, so be you also holy."

This passage of the RaMBaM is difficult; what is the connection between

imitation of God's virtues of graciousness and mercy and the notion of the

"golden mean"? The Guide of the Perplexed (1:54) offers an answer to this problem. There

RaMBaM explains that God's actions do not spring from emotions and

psychological tendencies, for, "He is above all defect! The same is

the case with all divine acts: though resembling those acts which emanate from

our passions and psychical dispositions, they are not due to anything

superadded to His essence." Therefore, RaMBaM claims:

The

governor of a country, if he is a prophet, should conform to these attributes.

Acts [of punishment] must be performed by him moderately and in accordance with

justice, not merely as an outlet of his passion. He must not let loose his

anger, nor allow his passion to overcome him: for all passions are bad, and

they must be guarded against as far as it lies in man's power. At times and

towards some persons he must be merciful and gracious, not only from motives of

mercy and compassion, but according to their merits: at other times and towards

other persons he must evince anger, revenge, and wrath in proportion to their

guilt, but not from motives of passion… for the chief aim of man should be to

make himself, as far as possible, similar to God: that is to say, to make his

acts similar to the acts of God, or as our Sages expressed it in explaining the

verse, You shall be holy (Vayikra 21: 2): "He is gracious, so be you also gracious: He is merciful, so be

you also merciful" (based on Friedländer translation).

That

is to say: imitation of God does not necessarily always mean being gracious and

merciful, since God is sometimes vengeful and angry. One must imitate God's

balanced style of action, which is founded upon thought rather than emotion:

"Therefore the first Sages commanded that one should always control his

dispositions, measuring and directing them in the middle path in order that he

be perfect" (Hilkhot Deot). The

notion that people must act in accordance with rational criteria rather than

out emotion finds a different mode of expression in the second chapter of the Guide

of the Perplexed, where Adam's sin in the Garden of Eden is discusses. This

is not the place to go into it. In any case, these ideas certainly are among the

foundation blocks of RaMBaM's religious world-view.

According

to the interpretation offered above, the sin of Nadav and Avihu resulted from

hasty and thoughtless action. Innovation was not their sin; rather they sinned

in allowing themselves to be dragged into religious enthusiasm by emotionalism

and psychological tendencies. Worthy religious innovation can only arise from

the purifying flames of halakhic thought and analysis; after that it will

certainly find favor in the Lord's eyes.

The author

tarries in the Texan exile.

 

Shoah, Remembrance, and Independence: Timely Musings

These

are the days of Sfirat HaOmer, between Passover and Shavuot. Talmudic

tradition mentions them as days of hardship in which we observe some mourning

customs in memory of R. Akiva's students who died in a plague due to their

disrespectful treatment of each other. Later tradition added to that tragedy

the commemoration of the "holy congregations which gave up their lives for

the sanctification of the Name" – that is why during this period the

memorial prayer Av HaRahamim is also recited on Shabbatot immediately

preceding Rosh Hodesh. A great part of European Jewry was also destroyed in

this season of the year during the Holocaust.

Biblical

tradition views these days as a time for spiritual ascent, for the joy and hope

marked by the commandment to count the omer. These days of counting are

also the days between Passover – which marks our escape from slavery to freedom

– and Shavuot – when we received our Torah. The counting represents the

yearning for completion of physical liberation with spiritual liberation

("No one is a free-man save he who occupies himself with Torah.")

There

is here, then, a dialectical tension between the early and original stratum of

this period and the memory of later harsh events that we memorialize in its

course.

I

think we encounter a similar tension during the week which includes Holocaust

Memorial Day, the Memorial Day for fallen soldiers, and Israel Independence Day

which immediately follows.

This

mixture of sorrow and joy is strikingly typical of Jewish history, and it finds

expression in many customs: the eating of an egg during the Seder in

commemoration of the Temple's destruction, the breaking of a glass by the groom

at a wedding and the expression I bring up Jerusalem at the beginning of my

joy. All of these customs faithfully express a necessarily relative

perspective on life. As RaBMaM said in connection with the commandment of

dwelling in a sukka: "That we might always recall the bad days

during the good days."

The

principle of viewing things in a sophisticated and balanced fashion is a pillar

of Jewish tradition; there is no other way to deal sanely with the ups and

downs of our lives – private, communal, and national. We cannot submit

absolutely to perceptions from the present while neglecting the past and the possible

changes that the future may bring.

This

message is true and important each and every year, but I feel it is especially

relevant to our present difficult year.

The

horrible Holocaust of our parent's and grandparent's generation was a turning

point and a moment of crisis both in the life of the Jewish People and in the

life of all humanity. The very need felt by various Holocaust deniers to dismiss

and blur facts testifies to the difficulty of dealing with this monstrous

legacy.

Many

Jews who were uprooted from their homes, who lost parents, spouses, siblings,

and children, and who came up against the loss of the divine and human image in

such a cruel manner, lost their faith in a beneficent God and asked themselves

deep and difficult questions.

At

the public level, we encounter two opposing responses:

On

the one hand, some Jews became disappointed with human morality and with the

nations of the world. They tend to justify everything done in the name of the

Jewish People, having been taught by the Holocaust that we must be strong and

that we cannot rely on anyone but ourselves.

On

the other hand, some of us reacted to the Holocaust by developing a deep

empathy with every case of human suffering. When such people say, "Never

again!" they mean to say that the Holocaust has taught us never to let any

human being afflict his fellow, and that no nation may harm another.

Perhaps

the difficult and complex juxtaposition of the memorial days for the Holocaust

and for fallen soldiers with Israel independence Day requires us to strike a

balance between our deep identification with the Jewish lot and the difficult

challenge of creating a just and ethical society which treats every human being

created in the divine image with respect, and then you shall be called the

city of justice, the loyal town.

Pinchas Leiser, Editor

 

 

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