What could be the connection between the previous narrative about Nadav and
Avihu and the long treatment of permissible and impermissible foods that
these pesukim introduce? Perhaps we don’t need one. Maybe, so to speak,
there is always room for an appealing snack. Perhaps eating is so important
a concern that you can always talk about it any place you have an opening.
Chances are that the opposite is true. The Torah wants us to take eating
more seriously than we do. Moreover, this aim is the natural continuation of
the sections that came before.
The Torah seized upon Nadav and Avihu’s transgression to generalize a lesson
about our service of G-d. Serving Hashem on the cutting-edge of spiritual
growth (which is at the core of all the avodah of the Mikdosh) requires
complete clarity of mind. Alcohol dulls the mind. Serving Hashem on the
highest level requires that we not yield to momentary excitement (as Nadav
and Avihu did, in thinking that they had to introduce a fire on the inner
altar), but act with level-headed detachment. Alcohol makes this difficult,
or less probable. For these reasons, kohanim are instructed to forego wine
when serving in the Mikdosh.
The kohanim do not give up intoxicating wine as an exercise in self-denial.
They forego it only because of what it does to people. Elsewhere, the Torah
makes no similar demands. Nowhere does the Torah urge us to be teetotalers,
or to approach permissible pleasures abstemiously. The kohain entering into
the Mikdosh gives up his consumption of wine, but not because the holiness
of his task requires that he deny himself the earthly pleasures of the
common man. To the contrary. The section that follows the ban on drinking
describes the atonement of a sinner who brings his korban to the Mikdosh.
The kohanim play a key, final role in that procedure, but not through holy
incantations and the like. The last step in the atonement process - after
all the deep and beautiful symbolic rituals centering on the altar – sees
the kohanim eating their significant share of the korban. As the gemara puts
it, the kohanim eat, and those who brought the korban are atoned for. The
ultimate expression of the success of the Mikdosh and its mission is not in
denying us anything, but in the elevation of eating – and by extension all
sensory pleasures. The changes that come over us through living in the
presence of the Shechinah and in listening to its messages sanctify the most
ordinary things in life.
Outside of the Mikdosh, then, it could easily be argued that affairs of the
palate are largely irrelevant to our responsibilities as Torah Jews. It is
this mistaken notion that our parshah now addresses.
The section is addressed to both Moshe and Aharon – a rare occurrence in
Chumash. The very first mitzvah sections – sanctifying the New Moon, and the
korban Pesach laws – were given to both. So will a few of the sections that
follow this one: laws of nega’im, zivah and nidah. Only in our case does
the Torah add the words “saying unto them,” specifically addressing their
individual capacities in sharing their knowledge with the people as a whole.
Moshe was the ultimate teacher, the one who allowed us to understand the law
completely. Aharon’s job, as the head of the kohanim, was to ensure that the
people could turn that law into reality, especially by maintaining the inner
qualities of feelings, will and determination without which the system would
founder. We find here a pattern of sections so crucial that they had to be
entrusted to two giants, each overseeing a different role.
The first mitzvah sections in Chumash Shemos created the body of the Torah
nation, of a people in a close covenant with Hashem, ready to perform His
bidding. Parshas Mishpatim established a platform of social cohesion that
would allow Bnei Yisrael to function as a nation. With parshas Terumah, we
were brought to the next level - building a Mishkan that would embody the
ideals of Hashem’s Torah. This section stretches to the place in the text
that we now find ourselves.
Building an abode for the Shechinah, and arranging for all its support
personnel was important. It could have remained, however, an elegant
showcase, a theoretical display of the ideals of the Torah, beckoning from
an unreachable distance. The Mishkan was not designed to be an interactive
museum, but a reality in the life of every single Jew. Every facet of life
should be changed for the better by the Mikdosh. This would require a
community longing for, cherishing, and savoring the holiness of the Mikdosh.
The people would have to be those to whom the Torah could address that
all-important demand that will appear a few chapters further on: “You shall
be holy, because I Hashem your G-d am holy.”
This holiness would not result simply from the will. Aspects of holiness
would need be introduced in sweeping facets of people’s lives, as in their
eating, and even in the ways in which they would be conceived, as in the
sections that follow. This is the task and challenge now put before Moshe
and Aharon to translate into reality.
For I Hashem are your G-d. You shall sanctify yourselves, so that you
shall become holy – for I am holy. Do not make your souls impure through any
creeping animals that creep on the ground.
Holiness will come neither with complete ease, nor with insurmountable
difficulty. I ask only that you work at it. Set your minds to it. Apply
your energies and talents to keep at bay all things that make you less
receptive to My demands, less able to act upon them. You will need to resist
forces that pull you in a very different direction.
If you sanctify yourselves – if you do work at it – I will guarantee that
you will be successful. With practice, the distractions from holiness, the
competitors, will become less and less attractive, and you will expend less
effort fending them off. Then, you will absorb without a struggle all the
morality and purity that I have in mind for you, and that grows out of My
own holiness. You must become holy because I am holy.
I am the cause of your holiness in two ways. Firstly, I demand it of you. If
you wish to be in close association with me, you must become beings closer
to My nature. Your actions must harmonize with Mine.
This very holiness of Mine not only demands your holiness, but it enables it
as well. Hence, a second dimension to our pesukim. This holiness of Mine is
not a distant ideal, but something that lives already within you. This
neshamah, this breath of Myself that I breathed into you, acts in your small
world as I do in Mine. I am entirely above compulsion. Nothing forces Me to
act in any way. I have complete freedom. I have planted that aspect of
Myself within you. You, too, can free yourselves of compulsion and
limitation. You can master the forces that sweep by you in the world I
created for you, and become their small god.
This is the ultimate freedom – and the essential definition of holiness.
1. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Vayikra 11:1
2. Based on the Hirsch Chumash, Vayikra 11:44