<I>Shemini</I>: Fire-Water

The <I>midrash</I> is teaching that Nadav and Avihu were given this capital punishment because they had brought a fire unto G-d that had not been commanded while having become intoxicated with wine.

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Rabbi Dr. Shlomo Riskin,

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Arutz 7
"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 Biblical history is the death of Nadav and Avihu, the two sons of Aaron the High Priest, on the day of 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 G-d Himself sent down a fire to consume them.

The midrash (VaYikrah Rabbah 12:1) attempts to provide an explanation:
It seems impossible to understand why G-d would have caused them to die. And then comes the explanation in the verse that 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 statute 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 G-d that 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 Rabbi Meir's view in the Talmud (Sanhedrin 70A-B), "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 that 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, whose first Seder night is punctuated by four cups of the wine that symbolizes redemption. The Talmud goes on to teach, "There is no joy without wine since 'wine gladdens the heart of humanity.'"(Pesahim 109A). And further enjoins that we "Remember [the Sabbath day] with 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 Havdalah. Is it not strange that the very wine that has the capability of causing forgetfulness and debauched drunkenness can also be used as a means towards understanding and distinguishing? After all, the very reference to Havdalah (separation between the holy and the profane) is placed in the blessing in which we ask G-d to provide us with understanding and the ability to distinguish. In the words of our sages, "If there is no knowledge, then 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 Havdalah 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, then he will become a head; if not, then 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 servants 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 G-d in joyousness and goodheartedness." (Maimonides, Chapter 6 of "Laws of the Festival", Law 20)

And later on, at the end of his "Laws of the Lulav" (8:15), Maimonides writes that "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, but wine is produced by the vine only by a long and arduous process; 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 [la'asot]" the Sabbath, and when we hold aloft the wine goblet of Kiddush, it is after we have spent at least most of Friday in preparation for the holy day. Wine that is drunk before one has expended energy and accomplished an ideal will lead to drunkenness; only wine that comes to express an inner state 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, Rabbi 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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