TUI: Thinking Under the Influence

April 1st: Shemini
Rabbi David E. Ostrich

In the midst of the excitement and inspiration of the newly consecrated Mishkan (Tabernacle), a great tragedy occurs. “Now Aaron’s two sons Nadab and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which God had not enjoined upon them. And fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them; thus they died at the instance of the Lord.” (Leviticus 10.1-2).

Though some mystics see the fate of Nadab and Abihu as a kind of a mystical union with the Divine, the general response of the Tradition is that they do something very wrong and are punished. What is their sin, and how do we avoid it? The only information the text gives us is that they offered esh zarah, alien fire or strange fire, a term whose vagueness has given commentators free rein in finding lessons.

Some suggest that the two new priests tried something creative—that is, something other than what God had prescribed. Others suggest that they entered the holy place with too much ego—that they were focused on their status as priests rather than on the holy offices they were filling. Others suggest frivolity and use this as an object lesson for the importance of concentration and seriousness. And then there is the one identified by Rashi some 1000 years ago. He noticed that the paragraph immediately following the incident warns about the problems of inebriation: “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 the ages, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure, and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.’”

The lesson about the dangers of wine and strong drink is pretty obvious and, unfortunately, one that still needs to be learned by many. However, I want to focus on the second half of the passage—the one about the important of distinguishing between sacred and profane and between impure and pure. The problem is not just being drunk; the problem is that being drunk impairs our judgment, and the Torah reminds us that judgment needs to be precise and accurate.

This should not be a big surprise, but there is a tendency in our current social environment to emphasize drama and excitement over accuracy and truth. We find ourselves in an atmosphere of competitive hyperbole that treats serious issues as entertainment and militates against the sober consideration of facts.

I understand the rhetorical value of exaggeration, but I am a million percent sure that hyperbole only works properly when people understand the actual facts that are being exaggerated. When this is the case, the emotional energy can be noted, but, when this is not the case, the deliberative process is impaired, and the solutions to real problems are harder to find.

I would like to suggest a number of issues that are falling prey to this unsober drama, and I would ask you to consider whether the drama helps or obscures the real issues. I would also ask you to think about how the emotional energy may enrage one side to fury and the other side to dismissal—how realistic solutions are rendered harder to find.

(1)   Was the “Ground Zero Mosque” really at the site of the former World Trade Center? Was the mosque new construction or just a remodeling of a section of a long-standing Islamic community center?

(2)   Does any serious thinker believe that Black Lives do not Matter? Is there really a campaign by police to kill black people? On the other hand, is it possible that some police conduct may be misconduct?

(3)   Are undocumented aliens a drain on our economy? Do any of them work in industries that are important to us?

(4)   Is the presence of a transgender person in a public restroom a danger?

(5)   When the Supreme Court recently heard the dispute over who has to fill out an exception form—the employer who objects to artificial contraception on religious grounds OR the employee of such an employer, was the “health care of women” really threatened?

(6)   What is carpet bombing, and how will carpet bombing the Middle East help matters?

(7)   Did the political spinning of the attack on the U.S. Consulate in Benghazi cause the deaths of the four American diplomatic personnel?

Each of these subjects deserves serious discussion, but serious discussion can get left behind when the entertainment value of a good story becomes more important that facts. Lying is not good for the public discussion. Truthiness is not truth. Hyperbole is only honest if the audience understands what it is. Otherwise, our civic and political life is just as impaired as the drunken King Ahasuerus, and the story of Megillat Ester shows us what can happen when public policy is combined with continually inebriated thinking.