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Parshat Shemini (5761)

This week’s section tells of the strange and tragic death of the two sons of Aaron the High Priest.

Strange, because their death was caused by their rushing into the “Holy of Holies” on its opening day... stoned drunk! (Rashi 10:2) and G-d killed them by sending beams of fire into their nostrils (Rashi 10:5), burning only their insides.

And tragic because they and their intentions were pure and holy; Moses praised what they did and declared it sanctifying G-d’s name (10:3).

So why were they punished?

To understand this here is a story.

Some 250 years ago in Russia. In only two hours, at nightfall, would begin the holiest day of the year. Jews all over the world were preparing and purifying themselves for this awesome ‘Day of Forgiveness’ Yom Kippur when, G-d absolves any and every sin that is repented for with a whole heart. In the days of the Temple the High Priest would enter the Holy of Holies,

But Rav Avraham, one of the devoted followers (Chassidim) of the Great Master Rav Shneur Zalman of Liadi, was thinking only of money.

He had to come up with eight hundred rubles before nightfall.

A gang of thieves were holding an entire Jewish family in captivity, the police, as usual, refused to help and the ransom was 1,000 rubles.

For over a month, the community tried to scrape up the money and save them from being murdered. They sold and pawned their own belongings and begged from other communities, but after all this they only managed to gather two hundred; things looked very bad.

“What can I do? Where can I go?” Rav Avraham, who had taken the project on his shoulders, thought to himself as he absentmindedly strayed out of the Jewish sector and passed the local tavern. “Less than two hours to go, where will the salvation come from?”

The smell of whiskey and coarse laughter suddenly made him snap to. “Hey Jew!! Haa Haaa!!” someone yelled from the bar, “Hey Jew Rabbi!! Come on in!!! Want a punch in the face!! Haaaa Ha haaa!”

Suddenly he stopped….

“THAT’S IT!” he thought to himself, “It’s my only chance! G-d please help me!” he closed his eyes in prayer.

As though transformed into a new man, he turned and walked calmly toward the open barroom door, with head erect and a slight smile on his face. Before entering he paused for a moment, fixed his collar, straightened his long coat then strode in, stood proudly before the surprised crowd of half-drunk townies, waited for silence and announced;

“I can out-drink anyone here!”

Surprised, sensing the challenge and the heaven-sent opportunity to have some fun they first turned to one another eyebrows raised in disbelief, then with huge smiles on their half-intoxicated faces turned back to him.

“You can down one bottle of Vodka without stopping?” one of them asked. “Can the Rabbi down TWO BOTTLES???” another shouted out from the back of the room pushing his chair back and standing up.

He approached and declared in a loud voice pushing his forefinger into the Chassid’s chest each time he said the word ‘you’.

“I’m willing to bet that you can’t drink two bottles of vodka without stopping. That will prove you are better drinker than us. You can do this, Jew?”

“No one can do that without dropping dead! Ha Ha!!” Someone yelled.

“Tell us, exactly what type of stakes do you have in mind Rabbi?” another one chimed in.

“Four to one; I put up 200 rubles and you put up 800” he replied pulling out all the money he had.

In no time all the money was gathered and given to the bartender who promised to be fair, neutral and hand the jackpot over to the winner and the bet was on.

The townies were ecstatic. There were over twenty-five of them, so even if the Jew won, which was very doubtful, it would cost each one less than thirty rubles. Not a bad price for such quality entertainment, and most probably the poor fool would O.D. from the vodka before he finished anyway, so they’d all get their money back and make a profit to boot!

A table was cleared, everyone gathered around, and the Jew climbed up, bottle in hand. He stood at his full height, lifted the bottle and announced, “LeChiam!” and everyone yelled after him, “LeChiam Jew! LeChiam.”

Then the small crowd fell silent.

He stared at the bottle, slowly made a blessing “Boruch ataw ….. SheHaKol Neeyeh Beedvoro”, and began drinking.

It was like drinking fire but he breathed deeply and kept swallowing until he lost track of how long it was he’d been at it. His throat was burning, it was hard to breath but he kept going. Five minutes later it was finished!

He triumphantly removed the bottle from his lips and held it upside down for all to see as he stuck out his hand for the second, which was promptly produced.

He asked for a chair. He was getting dizzy and standing was not part of the bet.

Sitting down, he held the bottle in his wavering hand up toward the ceiling and shouted “LeChiam, LeChiam Aibershter (G-d) !!!” And again began to drink, and drink, and drink.

Everything around him was vaguely dark and silent. All he heard was the gulping of the vodka, it seemed like the only thing in the world was his throat; he had to keep it working, after a minute or so he wasn’t really sure if he was actually swallowing or not, he just kept doing what he was doing a second ago, gulp, gulp, OY!....Gulp.

The next thing he knew, he was sitting on someone’s shoulders, fifty hands were holding him so he wouldn’t fall and everyone was singing and dancing, slapping him on the back and shouting, “There’s a real man! A super-rabbi!! Haaa Haaaa Ha!!”

Somehow he was standing on the floor, the bartender counted out the money, our hero neatly folded the wad, stuffed it into his pocket and unceremoniously staggered out of the bar in the direction of the Jewish section.

The ‘inn-crowd’ followed him for a while hoping he would pass out, or even die from the massive amount of alcohol he had consumed but he didn’t. He just kept walking in the direction of the Shul.

By now, the world was spinning at tremendous speed around him, rising and falling like a blanket waving in a slow warm wind. He stumbled and fell hundreds of times. He was dusty, muddy, dirty, bruised, dead drunk but finally made it to the house of prayer.

He burst in like a storm, oblivious of the solemn Yom Kippur service in progress, threw himself on the podium where the Torah is read and sang out at the top of his drunken voice:

“Ataw Horaisa L’Daas!!!!! ShHaShem Hu HaElokim!!!!! AIN OD MILVADO!!!!!!!!!!!”

[One of the joyous praises announced almost two weeks later (after the holiday of Succot) before the festive dancing on Simchat Torah. Literally: You have shown that G-d is the Creator there is nothing but Him!]

The Chassidim were amazed; the man was actually stoned drunk on the holiest and most serious day of the year. And he didn’t even know what day it was; he was singing a song from a different holiday??!!

But the Rebbe understood,

“His drinking is higher than everyone else’s fasting” The Rebbe declared, “He completed all the spiritual work of Yom Kippur and even Succot, he’s got a right to rejoice.”

So this explains the above questions.

There are two types of intoxication; like our Chassid who did it for the benefit of others, or like the two sons of Ahron who did it for themselves.

Aharon’s two sons realized the awesomeness of the moment; it was the opening day of the Holy Temple, the same revelation of G-d as on Mount Sinai was available in the inner sanctum ……. in this physical world! And they wanted to be as close to the truth as possible.

So they drank wine to become detached from the physical and more sensitive to the spiritual [As the Tamud says (Aruvin 66a) “When wine enters, the secrets come out”] and then rushed into the Holy of Holies. Their motives were of the highest and purest spiritual nature.

Therefore Moshe praised them.

But it nevertheless was a sin because they missed the point. G-d, was revealing Himself in the Tabernacle not to encourage people to be spiritually selfish pleasure seekers and leave the world but rather to be selfless and to improve the world.

In other words, just as G-d had so-to-speak, ‘changed His nature’ and ‘come down’ into the Tabernacle in order to make this physical world holy, so should we do the same: change our natures and be His partners; as it says in the Alenu prayer: “To fix up the world with the Awareness of HaShem.”

And because their sin was overemphasizing the spiritual, G-d punished only their souls; removing their spirit and leaving their bodies and even clothes intact.

This is the lesson to be learned here; although the spiritual (i.e. the teachings of Kaballa) is important and even essential to Judaism, even more essential is actually and selflessly bringing these spiritual ideas ‘down’ and doing what G-d wants in this world.

That will be the goal of Moshiach; to fill the world with the awareness of G-d and it is exactly what the Rebbes of Chabad have done for the last 300 years; to unite the spiritual in the physical.

Today millions of volumes of Chabad teachings called ‘Chassidut’ are available and myriads of Chabad Houses and Chabad emissaries are bringing the deepest Kabbalistic ideas ‘down to earth’ spreading Judaism everywhere in the world (Visit your local Chabad House for details).

And Moshiach is MUCH closer than we think… in fact just one more good deed, word or even thought can tip the scales and reveal……..

Moshiach NOW!

Copyright © 1999-2018 Rabbi Tuvia Bolton. All rights reserved. No unauthorized reproduction or copying of this material shall occur without prior permission.

(5760- )



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