May 10, 2003
This week’s haftarah, like the parashah, contains rules regulating the behavior of the religious leadership in Biblical times – the cohanim (the priests). Ezekiel’s legislation has, at times, been seen as controversial because of its variances from similar legislation found in the Torah. At least one law, however, remains constant both in Ezekiel’s prophecy and in the Torah: “No priest shall drink wine when he enters the inner court.” (Ezekiel 44:21) This law hearkens back to a similar law presented in the Torah itself, immediately after the Torah recounts the tragic deaths of Nadav and Avihu, Aaron’s sons, in the sanctuary in the desert: “And the Lord spoke to Aaron, saying: ‘Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is a law for all time throughout all ages. For you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure’” (Leviticus 10:8-9)
The Torah does not prohibit alcohol consumption. In the case of cohanin during service in the Temple, the Torah makes an exception. The Torah makes explicit the reason for this prohibition. Cohanim were responsible for the Temple ritual and for judicial and religious decision making. The life of the nation was in their hands. Since a person who is drunk does not have sufficient awareness and discernment to make distinctions when making measured decisions, anything less than complete sobriety was dangerous. Putting the life of the nation in drunken hands was a serious matter. The tradition codified this position and prescribed the death penalty for any cohen who transgressed this law. (See for example Mishnah Torah Laws of Entry into the Temple 1:1)
The rabbinic tradition takes this prohibition as an opportunity to rail against the social ills caused by drunkenness. As an illustration of how the lack of judgment caused by drunkenness can wreak havoc in the life of the heavy drinker and his or her family, the sages bring this anecdote. [Drunkenness will cause the drinker, in the end, to empty his or her house of its possessions. How so? The drunk will say to him or herself:] ‘This is a nice bronze vase, but a clay vase will do just as well.’ [He will go sell the bronze vase and buy a clay vase and use the extra money to buy drink. He will do this until he empties his house of all of its possessions.]” (adapted from Leviticus Rabbah 12:1)
This anecdote is obviously only illustrative. The lack of judgment caused by drunkenness can show itself in many ways as all of us well know. The tragedies in this area of life abound. It is therefore incumbent upon each of us to take the advice implied by this anecdote to heart.
This study piece is offered as a service of the United Synagogue Conservative Yeshiva. It is prepared by Rabbi Mordechai (Mitchell) Silverstein, senior lecturer in Talmud and Midrash at the Conservative Yeshiva. He is a graduate of the Jewish Theological Seminary of America.
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