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ACCESS DENIED

by Rabbi Chaim Goldberger    
Torah from Dixie Staff Writer    

"And to teach the Children of Israel all the decrees that Hashem spoke to them through Moses" (Leviticus 10:11).

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"And to teach the Children of Israel all the decrees that Hashem spoke to them through Moses" (Leviticus 10:11).

One of the most important responsibilities of a rabbi is to render decisions and interpretations in Jewish law, p'sak halacha, for his congregants. Based on the above verse's context in this week's Torah portion, the sages derive that it is forbidden for anyone to render such decisions while under the influence of alcohol. However, this exegetical understanding of the verse does not seem to be in consonance with the simple explanation of the verse that anyone who knows how to render p'sak halacha is obliged to do so. While we certainly understand that the Torah can be understood on multiple levels, the simple meaning of a Torah verse and its derivative laws must be somehow related, because their source (and therefore their essence) are one and the same. What unites the law that a rabbi cannot rule while drunk and the law that every rabbi who is capable of issuing a ruling must do so?

This week's Torah portion relates the story of Nadav and Avihu, the two eldest sons of Aaron, who committed the devastating sin of bringing a "strange fire" into the Mishkan (Tabernacle) and, as a result, were instantly consumed by a divine fire. This story is very problematic. How could Nadav and Avihu, acknowledged leaders and tzaddikim (righteous people), have committed such a grave sin?

There are two possible functions that a sanctuary can have - to limit the Divine presence, as it were, to one confined space, or to focus Hashem's presence in one area so that it becomes easier for us to relate to Him. If Hashem's presence is too overwhelming for you when it is unlimited, you will want a sanctuary as a limiting tool. However, if it is so wonderful that you want to return the affection, you will want a sanctuary for its focusing function.

Now, if you allow Hashem's unlimited presence in your world, it is only natural that He would welcome your unlimited presence in His. Conversely, if you allow Hashem only within limits, He will likely restrict you in your relationship with Him in a similar manner. The Jewish people in the desert felt overwhelmed by Hashem's presence, as demonstrated by their need to build the golden calf. For them, the sanctuary meant a place where a relationship to Hashem could be conducted safely within strict, manageable limits. But for the sons of Aaron, it was just the opposite. They never wanted the golden calf! Their interest in the sanctuary was as a place to focus and return their intense love for Hashem. Therefore, they have a right to expect unlimited access.

Nadav and Avihu knew full well that the sanctuary had been set up as a means of limiting the contact between the Jewish people and Hashem's presence. And they understood that this meant that korbanot (sacrifices) would be accepted only within a series of strict, highly regulated parameters. But they were the sons of Elisheva, sister of Nachshon ben Aminadav. Nachshon had been prepared to sacrifice himself for the Jewish people at the Red Sea when he jumped into the raging waters with nothing but faith in Hashem's promise that it would split. In similar fashion, these two tzaddikim were prepared to risk their lives on behalf of the Jewish people by single-handedly attempting to convert the Mishkan from a place of limited access to a place of unlimited access, where all forms of sacrifice would be welcome - or die trying. Unlike their Uncle Nachshon, they did die, but not for lack of righteousness. The people were simply not up to that level of spiritual greatness and could not sustain their young leaders' heroic act of self-sacrifice.

Perhaps now we can understand our initial question. If all forms of expression were holy, drunkenness would be an exalted state. Qualified people would even be allowed to render rulings in halacha while drunk, because nothing "wrong" would be able to emerge from them, so connected to Hashem would they be. However, because we have not yet merited the total connection to which Nadav and Avihu aspired, our access to Hashem is limited and we cannot rule halacha while drunk. But it is for this very same reason that those who are able to decide halacha must do so at the appropriate times, for if our own access to Hashem is limited, how precious are those few among us who are truly able to access Hashem's will through halacha! This scarcity of access creates the obligation on those individuals who have the access - who know how to render p'sak halacha - to make themselves available to the rest of us who thirst for Hashem's word.

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Rabbi Chaim Goldberger, a former member of the Atlanta Scholars Kollel, is the spiritual leader of Kenesseth Israel Congregation in Minneapolis, Minnesota.

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