This week’s reading begins (Lev. 16:1) with the punishment of Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu.
The rabbis explain that one of the reasons for their punishment by summary death was that they came up to the altar in a state of drunkenness after drinking too much wine.
One of the Chassidic teachers, Rabbi Simchah Bunim, found this explanation hard to take. He said, “But surely the Psalmist says, ‘Iv’du et HaShem b’simchah’, ‘Serve God with joy’ (Psalm 100:2) and he also says, ‘Yayin yesammach l’vav enosh’, ‘Wine makes the human heart joyful’ (Psalm 104:15). So the two men must have only been doing their duty!”
Simchah Bunim however realised that wine can make you tipsy and unaware of how to behave in the sanctuary. More than this, wine is an artificial means of reaching a high.
The better way of being joyful is to feel a sense of ecstasy at being in the Divine Presence, able to carry out the requirements of the Tabernacle service with spiritual joy.
THE HOARY HEAD.
The sidra tells us, “You shall rise before the hoary head and honour the presence of the old person” (Lev. 19:32). King Solomon said, “Old age is a crown of glory” (Prov. 16:31).
Treating old people with respect was always part of Judaism, but other cultures had a different idea. To them old people were a nuisance, and the sooner they died, the better.
In the Jewish estimation, the old person deserved to be honoured because they had struggled for the sake of society. So what if they now had failing faculties?
Some were blessed like Moses, still agile in body and sharp in mind at the age of 120. Others were not so fortunate. They themselves could wryly read the 12th chapter of Kohelet as a description of their own decline.
When I was chaplain to an Australian war veterans’ association we had a member called Lindsay Joseph who had served as long ago as the Boer War and in his 90s was still climbing ladders and affixing flags to flagpoles.
He used to say (quoting someone else, though he may not have realised this), “No-one gets old by living long. You only become old when you desert your ideals”.
THE WHOLE CONGREGATION.
Normally a Torah commandment begins, “Speak to the Children of Israel”.
Today’s second sidra, K’doshim, says more. It opens,
“Speak to all the congregation of the Children of Israel and tell them to be holy people” (Num. 19:2).
Addressing “all the congregation” teaches us an important lesson, that holiness does not come from being a hermit-like individual but by working in and with society.
There is a Yiddish phrase about being a tzaddik in a fur coat, which is a warning against being warm for and by yourself without bringing warmth to other people too.
On the verse,
“You shall keep My statutes and ordinances by which a person who does them shall live” (Lev. 18:4-5), the Sifra comments that the Torah speaks of “a person”,
not just a Jew.
Occasions such as Pesach, Shavu’ot and Sukkot derive from Jewish history and are not binding on non-Jews, but the Biblical moral laws are universal.
Rabbi Solomon Schonfeld, a dynamic Anglo-Jewish leader of an earlier generation, wrote a book called “The Universal Bible” in which he identified and analysed those laws that apply to all human beings.
The book is worth reading, but even without it the principle remains that an individual or nation desirous of truly living, needs the moral code of love, respect and freedom that is easy to find in the Jewish Scriptures.