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Drunk Priests

Have you ever had a glass of Merlot? More likely a can of White Claw. Regardless, you probably experienced a slight blurring of the vision and a dulling of your judgement. If you have multiple, these effects are more noticeable. In general, alcohol softens boundaries. Your vision and senses are less defined. Your judgement and thinking are clouded. You are more likely to make poor choices, to go places you shouldn’t go, say things you shouldn’t say to people you shouldn’t say them to. In general, you are more prone to breaking boundaries, be they social, physical, etc. The Book of Leviticus is very concerned about boundaries: boundaries between the pure and impure, kosher and nonkosher, holy ground and normal ground, priests and the masses, etc. Boundaries in time are also important; Leviticus is chock full of rules of when priests are to bring sacrifices, how long people should be quarantined when sick, menstruating, and more. Most of these boundaries are enforced by the priests and rely on their involvement. In general, Leviticus spells out a life of boundaries and regulations for the priests of Israel, the sons of Aaron.

In Parashat Shemini, just after Aaron and his sons are inducted into their service as priests, two of Aaron’s sons break from these regulations and boundaries. For the first time, Divine fire comes down to the altar of the Tabernacle and consumes a sacrifice, and the Tabernacle is open for business. Then, Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu decide to enter the Tabernacle without authorization and make an incense offering which God did not command. A Divine fire then consumes the two, killing them.

Why would God kill two priests who just took some initiative and decided to go above and beyond in their service of God? Some clues lie in the aftermath of the event. Immediately after relating the deaths, the Torah relates that Moses comforted Aaron by saying, “This is what Hashem meant by saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” After Moses comforts Aaron with these words, he has Aaron’s other two sons remove Nadav and Avihu’s bodies from the Tabernacle, and tells Aaron and his sons that they are not to display signs of mourning, and then God gives a command that Aaron and his sons never drink wine or any intoxicant when entering the Tabernacle, so that they can discern between the pure and impure, holy and profane, and teach this to the Israelites. Let’s break this down piece by piece.

First, you have Aaron’s other two sons removing the bodies of Nadav and Avihu. This reminds me of when, in Parashat Noach of Genesis, Noah is drunk, and two of his sons go into his tent and cover him up with a blanket. Noah should not be drunk and naked in his tent. Similarly, there should not be two dead bodies in the Tabernacle. In both instances, brothers step in to help out. In the situation in Noach, the father figure in the family is incapacitated as a result of his drunkenness. His sons have to act like a father to him. When people are drunk, they typically do not fulfill their responsibilities, are unreliable, and must be taken care of. A father has a responsibility to be a constant in the lives of his children. The priesthood is all about responsibilities. Priests have to be reliable, somebody the people can count on to perform their services rightly, a constant. It’s their souls that are in question, after all! Aaron’s other sons are like the sons of Noah who covered him up: responsible.

After that there comes the commandment to Aaron and his sons not to engage in mourning practices. Why might this be? They just lost a son and a brother? I think it is because the priests need to be a constant in the lives of the Israelites, unfailing in the performance of the Tabernacle’s service in strict accordance with God’s commands. If the people see the priests in mourning, displaying signs of sadness and emotional lows, the priests lose some of this sense of constancy in the eyes of the Israelites. They are prone to emotional swings, including grief over death, the Israelites conclude. When somebody dies, you typically expect that their loved ones might be out of commission for a while. You would not ask them for any favors for a while, and if they were an employee, you would cut them some slack on their work while they grieved. You feel it is not right to burden them in their time of mourning, and they are not in a stable enough mindset to complete their work. The same is true for the Israelites and priests. The Israelites would be hesitant to come to the priests with their sacrifices and other ritual matters if they saw the priests engaging in such a human behavior as mourning. In a way, the priests must be robots.

Lastly comes the commandment not to drink intoxicants before entering the Tabernacle. Essentially, do not show up to work drunk or high. This is the essence of the entire thing. People who are drunk or high cannot be relied on, they are not constant. Instead, they are volatile: possibly jubilant, possibly violently angry, possibly incapacitated. In the midst of the celebrations and joy that Divine fire had come down and that the Tabernacle would now be in service, Nadav and Avihu were caught up. They forgot their role as priests: unflappable rule-followers who perform an essential service for the Israelites according to God’s commandments. They were intoxicated with religious fervor, high on joy. In their excitement, they rushed into the Tabernacle to perform a spontaneous service, burning incense which God had not commanded them to. I imagine the spiritual state they achieved like the dancing, drunk Chasid, in an ecstatic, trance-like state. They must have felt so close to God. But they crossed a line. They went too far. They broke the rules of God by offering incense which he hadn’t commanded, and they broke physical barriers by entering the Tabernacle unauthorized. Like I said, drunkenness, whether it be literal or spiritual, blurs boundaries. This is simply unacceptable for a priest. They must be a constant, must be mindful of boundaries, must perform their services strictly according to God’s instructions. The people rely on them to perform services that will atone for their sins, show their thanks to God, and more. They better be reliable! Nadav and Avihu simply could not exist within the framework of the priesthood, and they died for this inability.

In consolation, though, Moses tells Aaron “This is what Hashem meant by saying: Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, And gain glory before all the people.” It is not clear if or When God did say this, but I’ll focus on the actual contents, not the quote’s provenance. Nadav and Avihu drew too near to God, but they glimpsed some of God’s holiness which others could not. It is worth noting that Aaron’s other suns pull out the bodies by their tunics. Despite being killed by Divine fire, their tunics are still intact. It seems this fire was not normal fire. It was almost spiritual; their souls were in such a state of ecstasy that they burned up. They flew too close to God, like Icarus flew too close to the Sun and died. Aaron can at least be comforted by the fact that his sons were shown God’s holiness. Also, their deaths served to demonstrate God’s power and glory to the entire people. God is so holy, they learn, that If you get too close, you die. So Aaron can be comforted also by the fact that the death of his sons glorified God.

This is just one angle of looking at the story of Nadav and Avihu’s death. I read it as all about reliability vs. spontaneity. I wonder if any of you see any other lenses to read this story through. Please let me know in the comments or make a post in the forum!

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