Our story this week opens on the eighth and final day of the dedication of the Mishkan. As the ceremony is coming to a close, Aaron’s two eldest sons, Nadav and Abihu, are tragically consumed by a Divine fire. We are told they brought a foreign fire, but know not the essence of their iniquity or the reason for their punishment.
Immediately following this event, God instructs Aaron, “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die” (Vayikra 10:9). Making the connection, Rashi (11c. France) astutely points out that Nadav and Abihu’s sin must have been offering incense while drunk.
Priests are forbidden from many things – coming in contact with the dead, marrying widows, having disabilities – why then does God only prohibit drinking when entering the Mikdash? Why not ban drinking in its entirety?
Our answer lies hidden in the priests’ anointing ceremony. Along with a burnt sacrifice, they are commanded to bring a sin offering. This is peculiar because they are not yet priests, there is no possibility for them to have already sinned.
What’s more, the text specifically outlines that the animal used for the sin offering must be “a calf of the herd” (Vayikra 9:2). Normally God merely dictates which animal to bring for what. In the case of the priest’s sin offering, however, the sacrifice must be “of the herd.” Through this clue, we can come to understand that the sin the priests are atoning for is inextricably linked to the process of becoming a priest. Even though the Jewish people are commanded by God to have priests, by becoming a one, a person separates themself from the community. Their sin is one of separation and therefore can only be atoned for by an animal that once was of the community.
In his laws on repentance, the Rambam (1135 – 1204 Spain) repeatedly posits that the worst sin of all is separating oneself from the community. We all live in tension between the desire to be a part of something greater than ourselves while at the same time needing to be seen – needing to be an individual. Perhaps it is because of this that God does not prohibit drinking altogether – She does not want to further distance the priests from the people.
Instead of blanket proscription, God gives the priests the gift of choice and so tells them, “this is a law for all time throughout the ages, you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, between the unclean and the clean” (Vayikra 10:9-10).
With Pesach behind us, we are now freed from those things that have enslaved us. Freedom comes with the power of choice, but it does mean total personal autonomy – it does not mean separation. I pray that we always find love and support in our communities, and from them draw the strength to continually choose life.