Shemini - weekly Torah portion

In most cases God speaks to Moses and then Moses either speaks to Aaron or directly to the Israelites. Only in some cases we read about a direct address to Aaron, and so is the case in the reading of this week’s portion of the Torah. “The Lord then spoke to Aaron, saying, ‘Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you come into the tent of meeting, so that you will not die—it is a perpetual statute throughout your generations— and so as to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and so as to teach the sons of Israel all the statutes which the Lord has spoken to them through Moses.’” That is, when entering the Mishkan, the tabernacle, one has to enter it completely sober, sobriety at a level that allows one to distinguish between what is pure and what is not. It is not an absolute demand to refrain from drink wine, beer or other such beverages, but there is an unequivocal demand to enter the Mishkan sober so that the work of the priests can be properly performed.

The Sin of Nadab and Abihu, as in Leviticus 10, illustration from a Bible card published 1907 by the Providence Lithograph Company

These words send a clear and sharp message to leaders of every generation of what is expected from them when they enter the place of leadership. They must get there clean of every undue influence that may distract them from good judgement. They must be able to clearly distinguish between right and wrong, between good and evil, between what is right and what is not. It is impossible to set laws for others when the leadership itself is under the influence and unable to perform its duties. They are warned here not to assume that they will be able to act properly under such conditions that may lead to death.

In our days the wine, beer and the likes of yesteryear, may be suspicions about dosages of a variety of Champagnes; Sometimes it is just a metaphor of being drunk because of a feeling of control that has no boundaries or limits. We see that all over the world with leaders who are quick to forget why they were elected and what they were elected for. They enter the place of leadership completely drunk, and therefore cannot effectively rule. These beverages may come in different forms; sometimes as a bribe, at other times as a ruthless behavior, or as a loss of memory as to the suffering and difficulty of those who are different, and at times to ignore the basic rights of the weakest of the society or minorities within it.

This portion of the Torah reminds us leaders to beware of these pitfalls. Every time we enter the hall of leadership we need to reexamine ourselves, and do it over and over again. It is so easy to fall into the trap of the driver who is convinced he is capable of driving until the fatal accident he is involved in, or when caught by police and arguing that it was just one meaningless shot of hard liquor. “Do not drink wine or strong drink, neither you nor your sons with you, when you come into the tent of meeting”. The message to the driver is “don’t drink and drive”, and in our context, “when leading no drinking”.

Sunday evening is the eve of Holocaust Memorial Day in Israel; as a People we were terribly hit by a leader who entered the place of leadership without the basic controls to lead people and impact their lives. The price in human lives was enormous, and we sob when we remember six million of our own people, who were murdered in the Shoah. The lesson has not been well learned; even today we witness the evil forces of the president of Syria involved in the killing of many of their very own citizens, men, women and children. All of that happens just on the other side of our very own border. Deeds performed by a leader who does not think he is accountable for what is going on there. While most of the responsibility falls on his shoulders, for sure, there is still ample place to demand leaders of nations around the world to start “to make a distinction between the holy and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean”. With over half a million people dead and millions who have become refugees, it still seems as if the leaders of the world enter the hall of leadership after consuming vast amounts of wine, beer and like beverages, leading the world under the influence. It is difficult to explain the seeming indifference towards the situation of all the innocent people being killed beyond our northern border.

It is our responsibility to demand from our leaders that they do their job free of any kind of bad influence, they should perform their tasks when they are sober. They have to be indifferent to bribe, reject undesired influences, be sensitive to human lives, and capable of distinguishing good from bad. They must be able to advance a meaningful dialog that allows bridging over differences, and stand on the pillars of justice and the right for life even when the going gets tough. The demand “is a perpetual statute throughout your generations” – we cannot and may not avoid it but rather we have to adapt it to our lives today, to the world we live in now, and to address accordingly the situations we face.

Shabbat Shalom,

Reuven Marko, 21 April 2017, 26 Nisan, 5777

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