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Parshat Shemini: Sanctuary Sobriety

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishing House


In the shadow of Nadav and Avihu’s tragic death, God turns to their father, Aharon, and commands:

Do not drink wine or intoxicating beverage, you and your sons with you, when you come into the Tent of Meeting, and you will not die; this is an eternal decree for your generations. In order to distinguish between the sacred and the profane and between the impure and the pure, and to teach the children of Israel all of the statutes that God has spoken to them through Moshe.

While the text seems to clearly prohibit the consumption of any alcoholic beverage during the Kohen’s fulfillment of his functions as priest and educator, the Talmud, after extensive debate, limits the full biblical prohibition to the ingestion of “intoxicating amounts” of wine. In further discussion, many halachists delineate additional, less severe penalties both for the consumption of other intoxicating beverages and for smaller amounts of wine. Finally, most scholars extend the requirement of sobriety during the teaching and application of the law to all teachers and not only to the Kohanim.

Moving beyond the technical aspects of the law, numerous commentaries focus on its potential motivation. The Torah’s concern, they say, centers on the debilitating effects of alcohol. An individual who is inebriated to any degree will neither be able to properly execute the Sanctuary service nor appropriately engage in halachic discussion and decision making. The Torah therefore prohibits the consumption of wine as a safeguard against possible intoxication.



Why are these commandments necessary?

Given the intricate detail of the Sanctuary service; given the clear repeated divine warnings concerning the potential consequences of error in that service; given the overwhelming specter of Nadav and Avihu’s death as an apparent result of ritual deviation; given the fact that proper halachic decisions clearly require one’s full faculties; why would anyone assume that these functions could be performed in a state of intoxication? Why must the Torah state the obvious?

To go one step further, if the Torah’s fundamental concern is potential error in the Sanctuary service or in halachic deliberation, why frame the prohibition as a ban upon alcoholic beverages? Why not simply reiterate a general warning that these disciplines must be approached with awe, reverence and caution?

Finally, if this law is based on the potentially debilitating effects of alcohol, why is a difference drawn in the Talmud between wine and other intoxicating beverages? Shouldn’t all substances that could potentially lead to inebriation be equally prohibited?



An astute observation made by a museum guide during one of my first trips to Israel can help us frame an answer to these questions.

“You can deduce,” he said, “common practice within a society from the legal edicts enacted by its government.”

“Centuries from now,” he continued to explain, “when the ruins of this museum are excavated, archaeologists will not find signs in the rubble stating ‘No bicycle riding.’ Since it is not current common practice in our day to ride bicycles through museums, legal postings prohibiting such behavior are not necessary and will not be part of the archaeological record.

“Excavators will, however, find ‘No smoking’ signs. This discovery will lead them to correctly surmise that smoking was likely to occur in public buildings during the twentieth to twenty-first centuries and that the administrators of this museum moved to prevent such activity.”


This comment may well shed light on the Torah’s concern for the sobriety of the Kohanim.

God finds it necessary to prohibit the consumption of wine during ritual and intellectual religious activity in response to “common practice” of the time.

The use of alcohol and other psychoactive drugs was an integral component of the religious rites of many ancient cultures. Rather than viewing inebriation and similar “escapist” behaviors as impediments to spiritual search, these societies considered the use of psychoactive substances an essential prerequisite of that very search.

Archaeological evidence, in fact, traces the use of psychoactive drugs in every age and on every continent from prehistoric times to the present. In modern times, the term entheogen (meaning literally “generating the divine within”) has been coined to refer to vision-producing drugs taken to bring on a spiritual experience. (Gordon Wasson, The Wondrous Mushroom: Mycolatry in Mesoamerica (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1980), xiv) The use of such substances, many have believed across the ages, enables man to loosen the shackles of his earthly existence and truly encounter the Divine.

In direct opposition to this approach, normative Judaism preaches an “earthly” encounter with our Creator. As we have consistently seen (see Shmot: Shmot 3, Approaches D, E; Yitro 2, Approaches C, D), one of the Torah’s primary messages is that God is to be found and experienced in this world, with our feet firmly planted on the ground. The Sforno maintains that Moshe, our greatest prophet, achieved his greatness specifically because of his ability to relate to God without relinquishing his physical senses. (Sforno, Shmot 33:11)

The ban on alcoholic consumption in specific settings, therefore, does not emerge solely from apprehension over alcohol’s potentially debilitating effects. A much more fundamental philosophical issue is reflected in this prohibition.

God’s message to His people is once again clear: I am not to be found in the mists at the summit of Sinai. I am not to be encountered in esoteric visions or “out of body” experiences. You are to find Me in your world through performance of My mitzvot, through the sober study, application and living of My law.


We can now also understand, as well, the distinction made in the law between wine and other intoxicating substances. Wine, even more than other psychoactive materials, has long occupied a particular place in religious ritual. This fact is evidenced at both extremes within Jewish law. On the one hand, because of the unique status of wine in pagan culture, the Torah mandates the prohibition of yayin nesech (wine that has been used for idolatrous purposes and is, therefore, prohibited to all Jews at all times). On the other hand, wine, in moderation, finds its positive place within Jewish practice, used to mark special occasions and events.

Had the Torah’s only concern been for potential error on the part of the Kohanim, all intoxicating beverages would have been treated equally. By singling wine out for special attention, however, the Torah communicates that there is more to this prohibition than meets the eye. Wine used properly and in moderation, the Torah teaches, like all of God’s physical creations, enhances our appreciation of the Divine. When used to escape reality, however, all psychoactive substances undermine our spiritual search, which is predicated on creating a union in our lives between heaven and earth.


At the dawn of our history, as the spiritual search of our nation begins, God again reiterates the distinction between Judaism and the surrounding cultures. Others may find their spiritual path predicated upon an escape from the realities of the physical world. Our path, however, is based upon the embrace and sanctification of that very world.

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Parshat Tzav: Manifest Destiny

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra,’ co published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers


Why is the priestly role within Judaism inherited and not “earned”? Why is honor given, to this day, to a Kohen simply because of his lineage?


A review of the Torah’s outline for Jewish society, from both a historical and a legal perspective, reveals a fascinating tension and interplay between inherited and earned roles and rights.


Certain roles within our tradition are inherited in perpetuity. All male descendents of Aharon are automatically Kohanim, while all male descendents of the tribe of Levi are, of course, Leviim (those who serve within the Temple). Within each Jewish family, firstborn males are accorded specific rights. (Devarim 21:17) Jewish men and women have different halachic obligations from birth. (Mishna Kiddushin 1:7) Once David becomes king all authentic royalty descends from the Davidic dynasty. (Rambam, Mishneh Torah, Hilchot Melachim 1:7–10) Even Jewish identity is unalterably inherited through one’s mother. (Talmud Bavli Kiddushin 68b) According to Jewish law while someone can certainly convert to Judaism, a born or converted Jew cannot “convert out.” (Ibid., Sanhedrin 44a)


On the other hand, other critical roles within Jewish society are clearly earned. Although the Torah is silent on the subject, Midrashic literature clearly reflects the position that God’s choice of Avraham is far from arbitrary. Instead, the first patriarch secures his position as the progenitor of the Jewish people only through years of lonely philosophical struggle and search. (Zohar 1:86a; Midrash Rabba Bereishit 38:13; Midrash Rabba Bamidbar 14:2) Moshe, the paradigm of leadership and the progenitor of rabbinic leadership, rises to greatness as a result of his own initiative. (Shmot 2:11–12) Sages, scholars, rabbis and teachers across the ages earn their positions of authority by dint of scholarship and character. More than a few of the scholars of the Mishna and Talmud rise from humble origins, including Shmaya and Avtalyon, (Talmud Bavli Gittin 57b) Hillel, (Ibid., Yoma 35b) Rabbi Akiva, (Ibid., Ketubot 62b; Pesachim 49b; Rambam, introduction to the Mishneh Torah) Reish Lakish (Talmud Bavli Bava Metzia 84a) and others.


Most fascinating of all is the tension inherent between these two potential paths of communal participation: what happens when birth roles and earned roles collide.

The pattern established in the patriarchal era, for example, is particularly telling. On the one hand, the concept of birth privilege is already recognized, as can be seen most clearly in the struggle between Yaakov and Esav for the title of firstborn. (Bereishit 25:29–34) And yet, in each generation of this historical period, the firstborn loses his rights to a younger sibling. Yitzchak, not Yishmael, is heir to his father’s legacy. (Ibid., 21:12) Yaakov supplants his older brother, Esav, in the struggle for Yitzchak’s blessing. (Ibid., 27–28:5) Yehuda, Yosef and Levi each receive a dimension of the leadership role which was to rightfully have been Reuven’s, as the firstborn. (Ibid., 49:1–27; Devarim 33:8–11) This pattern continues in the generations that follow as Yosef’s younger son Ephraim is given precedence over the older Menashe (Bereishit 48:13–19) and as Moshe overshadows his older brother, Aharon.

Though the firstborn Israelite males are originally designated for service within the Temple, they lose that privilege through their participation in the sin of the golden calf and the Levites are appointed in their stead. (Bamidbar 3:11–13; Rashi, Bamidbar 3:2) Although not originally designated to serve as a Kohen, Aharon’s grandson, Pinchas, rises to that role and, according to some authorities, his descendents serve as Kohanim Gedolim (High Priests), in reward for Pinchas’s courageous acts in defense of God’s honor. (Bamidbar 25:10–13; Rashi, Bamidbar 25:13; Ibn Ezra, Bamidbar 25:12)

Even in the less dramatic realm of daily halacha, the law dictates that a sage is given precedence over a Kohen in the distribution of honors, such as leading the Birkat Hamazon (Grace after Meals). (Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 201:1–2) Many scholars maintain that such precedence would also be shown to the sage in the order of aliyot (ascension to the Torah during the synagogue service), were it not for the need to apply an objective standard in the synagogue, thereby preserving congregational harmony. (Ibid., 135:4; Arba Turim, Orach Chaim 135; Beit Yosef, Orach Chaim 135; Mishna Berura 135:11–12)

Perhaps, however, the greatest proof of the transcendence of earned rights over birthrights can be gleaned from the moment of our nation’s birth. As we have noted before, the national era of our people’s history begins with the Exodus from Egypt and the Revelation at Sinai. Revelation, in fact, becomes both the moment of the Jewish nation’s birth and the defining event for individual affiliation with that nation.

Full descendents of Avraham and Sara, who choose not to leave Egypt at the time of the Exodus, disappear into the mists of history. Even further, a full Hebrew who participates in the Exodus, reaches Sinai, yet refuses to accept God’s law, is also lost to his people forever. Conversely, an individual who is not a Hebrew at all, yet is present at Revelation and accepts the Torah (e.g., an Egyptian who joins in the Israelite Exodus), becomes a full member of the Jewish nation. Commitment to God’s law, not blood relationship, is the defining factor for individual affiliation with our nation at its birth. (See Bereishit: Vayeshev 4, Approaches B, for a fuller discussion of this phenomenon and its implications.)

The verdict of our tradition seems clear. When a choice must be made between earned role and birth role, earned role triumphs.

Points to Ponder

A carefully crafted balance between birth and earned-roles has helped ensure the continuity of Jewish society across the ages. The collision of these roles at the cutting edge of Jewish life today may well shape the course of our people’s future.

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Parshat Vayikra: The Leadership Quandary

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’sUnlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Vayikra‘, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Unlocking the Torah Text VayikraThe Leadership Quandary


As mentioned in the previous study, the Torah outlines a series of cases where acts committed b’shogeig give rise to obligatory sin offerings. Covered in the text are unintentional sins committed by priests, communities, rulers and individuals.

In each of the above situations the Torah raises the possibility of sin, with one glaring exception…

When the Torah describes the potential sin of a nasi (leader), the text reads: Asher nasi yecheta, “When a leader sins…”


Why does the Torah state “when a leader sins” rather than “if a leader sins”?



There are scholars who are willing to embrace the pshat of this phrase and the troubling philosophical message it conveys. This straightforward approach is mirrored in the comments of the Sforno: “[The Torah states] ‘When a leader sins’ …for, after all, it is expected that he will sin.”(Sforno, ibid.)

At the dawn of history, the Torah establishes a truth most famously verbalized centuries later by the nineteenth-century moralist Lord John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton: “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” (Expressed in a letter to Bishop Mandell Creighton in 1887)

Through a simple twist of text, God warns of the dangers of leadership. From the Torah’s perspective the issue is not “if a leader will sin” but “when a leader will sin.” Whether because of the corrupting influence of power or simply because of the risks a leader must take, the assumption of a leadership position carries with it the inevitability of sin.

What, however, is the lesson the Torah wishes to convey? If sin and leadership are synonymous, does the Torah’s moral system discourage the assumption of leadership roles?


A strange Talmudic passage may well shed light upon the rabbinic attitude towards the interface between leadership and sin.

The rabbis taught: Four individuals died … not as a result of their own sins but from the mortality introduced into man’s existence, … in the Garden of Eden]. They were: Binyamin, the son of Yaakov; Amram, the father of Moshe; Yishai, the father of David; Kil’av, the son of David. (Bava Batra 17a)

The contemporary scholar Rabbi Zevulun Charlop notes that the Talmudic identification of each of these individuals is strange. Why, he asks, doesn’t the Talmud simply list their names? Why identify each historical figure by his relationship to another: Binyamin, the son of Yaakov; Amram, the father of Moshe; Yishai, the father of David; Kil’av, the son of David?

Clearly, the Talmud wants us to compare each of these four individuals to a more well-known relative. When we do so, a striking truth emerges. Each of the four figures identified in the Talmud as having died “without sin” pales in comparison to a close relative who cannot make that claim. While some Midrashic traditions maintain otherwise [As we have noted before (see Unlocking the Torah Text on Bereishit), a spectrum of opinion exists within rabbinic thought concerning the potential fallibility of biblical heroes, some sages refusing to see any possible failing on the part of the heroes of the Torah and Tanach.], the straightforward reading of events indicates that Yaakov, Moshe and David certainly sinned, and that their sins are recorded for posterity in the Tanach and rabbinic literature. Nonetheless, their place in Jewish history is unsurpassed. In spite of faults and human failings, Yaakov remains the greatest of our patriarchs, (Midrash Sechel Tov Bereishit 33) Moshe the greatest of our prophets, (Devarim 34:10) David the greatest of our kings. (Midrash Tehillim Mizmor 1)

Is it preferable to be Binyamin or Yaakov, Amram or Moshe, Yishai or David, Kil’av or David? While all of these personalities were righteous men deserving of emulation, the Talmud’s answer is clear: Better to risk sin and rise to leadership than to remain unblemished in the shadows.

Points to Ponder

A cursory glance at trends within Jewish day school and yeshiva education today reveals that we are not training the best of our children towards Jewish communal leadership.

So much emphasis is placed in the “yeshiva world” on the goals of personal piety and Torah study that many of our brightest are loathe to venture outside the walls of the beit midrash (house of study). Success within the system is defined by a willingness to engage in full-time Torah study. As a result, many young men and women whose contributions to the Jewish nation are potentially invaluable remain cloistered, unwilling to take the risks associated with involvement with the community at large.

At the same time, for years, the choice of a career in Jewish leadership has rarely been promoted by parents in the Modern Orthodox and non-Orthodox communities. Within those sectors, the rabbinate is generally perceived as “no job for a good Jewish boy” and teaching is often discouraged as a vocational choice. The hours in both the communal and educational spheres are seen as long, the burdens overwhelming, the responsibilities great, the social position lonely, the material rewards (in many cases) limited.

The rabbis, already in Talmudic times, acknowledged the moral risks inherent in positions of power. They determined, however, that the benefits of communal involvement far outweigh the cost. Today, we are challenged to recapture for ourselves and to communicate to our own children that sense of commitment and mission.

Thankfully, strides have been made to increase the professional stature and financial remuneration of those who choose careers in Jewish leadership. We still have a way to go, however, before those careers become as attractive and as respected as other opportunities available to the young men and women of our community.

The call to leadership is far from risk-free. Ignoring that call, however, carries the greatest risks of all.

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Parshat Vayakhel-Pekudei: Exalted or Humble Origins?

Excerpted from Rabbi Shmuel Goldin’s Unlocking The Torah Text: An In-Depth Journey Into The Weekly Parsha- Shmot, co-published by OU Press and Gefen Publishers

Exalted or Humble Origins?


Why does the Torah single out the basin and stand, both by omitting these items from the general reckoning and by specifying the origin of the copper used in the fashioning of these utensils?

What is the significance of the fact that these items were created from the mirrors donated by the women?


Diametrically opposed positions are adopted by the commentaries as they strive to interpret the unique origin of the basin and its stand.


Various scholars, including the Ibn Ezra and the Sforno, believe that the mirrors were suitable for use in the Temple specifically because their owners rejected those items’ usual usage. Mirrors are used, then and today, for vain purposes, to cultivate personal beauty and attractiveness. The women who donated these mirrors, however, as evidenced by their contribution, rejected physical vanity and showed a deep desire to cultivate and focus on a continuing spiritual relationship with God.

Taking a radically different tack, but evidencing an equally negative attitude towards personal vanity, the Chizkuni and a number of the Tosafists maintain that the strange passage concerning the basin and stand refers, not to the origin of these items, but to their placement. The basin and stand were strategically placed, they say, between the Sanctuary and the Mizbeiach so that they could be seen by the women regularly congregating at the Sanctuary.

The water from the basin was used in the divine trial of a sota, a woman suspected of adultery. (Talmud Bavli Sota 15b) The very sight of these utensils, therefore, would serve as a reminder of the dangers of licentious behavior. (Chizkuni, Shmot 38:8; Da’at Zekeinim Miba’alei Hatosafot, Shmot 38:8)


At the opposite end of the spectrum are those commentaries, represented by Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, who not only maintain that the basin and its stand were fashioned out of mirrors, but that the mirrors’ normal usage actually recommended them for this purpose. The Mishkan, says Hirsch, ultimately aims to influence the Israelites towards the sanctification of their lives. How appropriate, therefore, that specifically the basin, used by the Kohanim for the sanctification of their hands and feet as they enter the Mishkan, should be fashioned out of mirrors. The physical, sensual side of man is, thus, not excluded from the Sanctuary but is, instead, “the first and most essential object” of its sanctification. (Rabbi Shimshon Raphael Hirsch, Shmot 38:8)

Hirsch’s position is entirely consonant with Judaism’s fundamental view that no aspect of human existence is inherently evil. The sensual side of man is a gift from God meant to be channeled into sanctified relationships of love and marriage. The very origin of the basin thus serves as a reminder that all aspects of our lives, properly directed, are potential mediums for holiness.

A beautiful tradition found in the Midrash and quoted by Rashi further reflects Judaism’s position that no external object or human characteristic is inherently evil, but that value is ultimately determined by usage (see Bereishit: Bereishit 1 Approaches F).

During the period of Egyptian slavery, the Midrash relates, Pharaoh decreed that the Israelites should not sleep at home or have relations with their wives. Intent on perpetuating the nation in the face of this fearsome edict, the Israelite women went down to the fields of labor and, looking into their mirrors together with their husbands, aroused the men’s desire. In this way the women succeeded in ensuring that the nation would “be fruitful and multiply.”

Now, after the dramatic Exodus from Egypt and the powerful Revelation at Sinai, the newly formed nation begins to build the Mishkan. The Israelite women wonder: What can we contribute to the Sanctuary?

As one, they congregate outside the Mishkan and present their mirrors to Moshe. Moshe’s reaction is swift and harsh: What use have we for such mirrors – for items created to satisfy the evil inclination?

God, however, intercedes: These items are dearer to Me than all else! Through these mirrors the women raised up “countless hosts” in Egypt. (Midrash Tanchuma Pekudei 9; Rashi, Shmot 38:8)

The Midrash informs us that, in the words of Nehama Leibowitz: “The same instinct or impulse which can lead man to perversions, filth and destruction can also lead him to creativity, the building of a house and the continuity of the nation.” (Leibowitz, Studies in Shemot, p. 694)

The basin and stand in the Sanctuary serve as a reminder that God grants us gifts. The value of these gifts, however, is determined by how we use them.