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Shabbat Parashat Shemini 5781

Parashat Hashavua: Make Sure your Head Is Straight

Rav Daniel Mann

In the aftermath of the death of two of Aharon’s sons, who brought “a foreign fire” (Vayikra 10:1), the Torah commands kohanim not to drink wine or other intoxicating drinks before entering or serving in the holy sanctum (ibid. 9). The Torah goes on: “… and to make rulings for Bnei Yisrael on all of the statutes that Hashem spoke to them by Moshe’s hand” (ibid. 11).   

Chazal understood that in addition to entering the sanctum, it is forbidden for anyone to make halachic rulings under the influence of alcohol (Sifra, Shemini 1). Those who count the mitzvot (see Rambam, Lo Taaseh 73, Sefer Hachinuch 152) include the two as one mitzva, even though the violations come while doing very different actions: entering a holy place; rendering a ruling. What the prohibitions share is what was done previously that makes the subsequent important actions inappropriate.

Is the logic behind the two even the same? I would have thought that the matter of entrance/service in a state of intoxication is a matter of respect and comportment (although it is forbidden even if one drank only a few ounces). Who comes before the king in a state that can make him light-headed or worse? The matter of rendering rulings is ostensibly an intellectual matter. If you are not “at the top of your game,” you may overlook something, equate between matters that are not similar enough, etc. It does not seem to be a matter of behavior but of expected results. So why lump them together?

Maybe the comparison teaches us something in each direction. First, let us learn from rulings to the Mishkan. One might think that the most important thing in working or visiting the inner sanctums is enthusiasm and positive emotion. Perhaps then a little wine is just the thing to “light a holy fire.” On Purim, many people use a state of at least partial intoxication to experience what many report to be great spiritual highs. Indeed, there may be important elements of avodat Hashem in which the level of excitement and “letting go” spiritually may be positive. But one needs to know that there are limits! There are places that are just too holy to try to get by with emotion. You have to be sure that every step one takes and action he perform will be exactly as it should. Thus, wine is forbidden at that time.

In the other direction, let us learn from the sanctity of the Mishkan to the realm of rendering halachic decisions. Maybe rendering decisions is not just about intellect. One who teaches and certainly one who renders halachic decisions must strive (even if we cannot all succeed to the extent we would like) to “resemble an angel” (Moed Katan 17a). If he has allowed himself to be in a situation in which he is liable to either not behave with the utmost dignity or summon up all of his intellectual capabilities, he should not take the responsibility upon himself. Expecting to get things right intellectually is insufficient.
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