Rabbi Michael Gold

Jewish Family & Sexuality Issues-Rabbi Michael Gold


“Then Moses said to Aaron, This is what the Lord meant by saying, through those near Me, I show myself holy, and gain glory before all the people. Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:3)
This week’s portion contains the tragic deaths of Aaron’s two oldest sons, Nadav and Abihu. The Torah never tells us their precise sin, other than they brought an improper offering. Perhaps they were drunk. Or perhaps they made comments that it was time for Moses and Aaron to pass on so they could take over. Or perhaps they simply made up their own rules regarding offerings. The Rabbis considered all of these possibilities. But it was a tragic moment in the life of Aaron.
Moses immediately makes a comment about the loss of his two nephews. This shows how close the young men were to God and God gained glory through their deaths. Aaron listens to his brother and reacts with silence. Aaron is silent, but perhaps Moses should have been silent. There are times when it is better to be silent. That is why the book of Ecclesiastes teaches in one of its most famous passages, “There is a time for silence and a time for speaking” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Often, we speak when the proper reaction is silence.
I felt this with the recent sad loss we had in our family, with the stillbirth of our grandson Asher Louis. Mostly we received hugs and words of love and kindness. But there were people who felt obligated to justify God over what happened, making comments like “This is God’s way to keep your children from having an imperfect baby.” Even if that is true, it is not the appropriate comment to make at the moment of a stillbirth. Neither are comments like, “God wanted him in heaven because he was too valuable to send to this world” or “At least they already have a child.” Silence is better than inappropriate comments.
In the Biblical book of Job, the main character was tested by God, who sent the prosecuting angel (HaSatan) to take away his wealth, his children, and his health. (Note – the idea of Satan comes from this story.) Three of his friends came to Job to comfort him. Thus begins a long, powerful argument about God’s justice. But when the friends first arrive, they sit silently, waiting for Job to speak first. From this we learn a powerful tradition, when Jews visit a shiva home (a house of mourning), they do not speak. They always let the mourner speak first and set the tone of the conversation.
The Torah teaches that words have power. God created the world with words. The Bible teaches, “death and life are in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). Words are important, but often when we are uncomfortable, we fill the room with words. We love to speak. Nonetheless, words are not always the most appropriate reaction. There is a moment when silence is the more appropriate reaction. Musicians speak of the power of the musical notes. But equally important are the pauses and the rests between the notes. Often silence is more powerful than speaking.
Silence is not always the appropriate reaction. Our tradition teaches that when we see something improper, we are obligated to speak out. The Talmud teaches shtika k’hodaah domya “To be silent is like an admission” (Yebamot 87b). There are times we ought to speak out and silence is improper. But there are other times when silence is the appropriate response. The Mishnah teaches, “Shimon said, all my days I grew up among the sages, and I have found there is nothing better for the body than silence” (Avot 1:17). There is a time to speak and a time to be silent; wisdom is the ability to know the difference.

“On the eighth day Moses called Aaron and his sons, and the elders of Israel.” (Leviticus 9:1)

The word Shemini means “eight.” For seven days Aaron and his sons had prepared themselves for the formal inauguration into the priesthood. Now on the eighth day the formal rituals would begin. Numerous offerings are brought as Aaron and his sons prepared for their special role. Unfortunately, things go wrong. The two oldest sons of Aaron, Nadav and Abihu, bring a strange fire and die before the altar.
Eight has a special meaning in Jewish tradition. On Passover we sing the song Achad Mee Yodea – “Who Knows One?” One is God. Then the song runs through all the numbers up to thirteen. Each has a special answer. When I conduct a Seder, I like to use the song as a quiz. Of course, when we sing,“Who Knows Eight?”, the answer is the eight days of circumcision. We keep the baby boy for seven days, symbolic of the complete week of creation. Then, on the eighth day we bring the baby into the covenant.
The number seven in Judaism symbolizes completeness. There was a complete week of creation. We are in the middle of the seven times seven days of the counting of the Omer, leading from Passover to Shavuot. Passover is celebrated seven days (at least in the Bible and in Israel. Outside Israel we add an eighth day.) The Bible contains seven festivals of complete rest, beyond the Sabbath. Every seven years is the Sabbatical year, and after forty-nine years (7 x 7) we celebrate the Jubilee year. When we wrap the tefillin around our arm, we wrap it seven times. In a traditional Jewish wedding, the bride circles the groom seven times. And Aaron and his sons had seven days to prepare themselves for their holy task.
Seven may symbolize completeness, but the world we live in is incomplete. We have a job to complete the task that God took seven days to complete. God saw the world was “very good” but not perfect. Our job is to continue the task of creation, to complete and perfect the world. This is the meaning of the Hebrew phrase tikkun olam “perfecting the world” which grew out of Lurianic kabbalah. Seven may symbolize completeness, but the task is never complete. As Pirke Avot teaches, “Your job is not to complete the task, nor are you free to avoid it” (Avot 2:16).
This is the reason we circumcise an infant on the eighth day. It gives a powerful message that the baby is being born into a world not yet perfect, and he has a task to help perfect it. A baby boy in the Jewish faith carries the symbol of that fact in his flesh. The work is always incomplete, and as the child grows up, he must find his particular calling to perfect the world. Although baby girls are not circumcised, they too carry the charge to help perfect an imperfect world.
Unfortunately, this portion teaches the powerful lesson that as we humans try to perfect the world, sometimes things go wrong. The Torah never describes the precise sin that cost Nadav and Abihu their lives. Perhaps they were drunk, while bringing the offering. This portion forbids the priests from drinking. Or perhaps they were following their father Aaron and uncle Moses, complaining, when are these two old men going to die already so we can take over? This is one of my favorite Midrashim (Rabbinic stories). Or perhaps they simply brought a false offering, not following God’s command. At the moment of his sons’ death, the Torah simply teaches that Aaron was silent.
Many of you know that I love Broadway musicals. One of the most beautiful is Stephen Sondheim’s Sunday in the Park with George. It tells the story of Georges Seurat’s great pointillist painting A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. At the end of the musical, the painter George (actually his great grandson channeling the thoughts of the painter) meets the muse of his model Dot. He has given up his painting, not knowing where to go, and she sings the beautiful “Move On.” “Stop worrying where you’re going, Move on. If you can know where you’re going, you’re gone. Just keep moving on. I chose and my world was shaken. So what? The choice may have been mistaken. The choosing was not. You have to move on.”
If seven symbolizes completeness, eight symbolizes incompleteness. There is still work to be done. We must continue moving forward and do the work. Sometimes things go wrong. But we must move on.


“Now Aaron’s sons Nadav and Abihu each took his fire pan, put fire on it, and laid incense on it, and they offered before the Lord alien fire, which he had not enjoined upon them.  Fire came forth from the Lord and consumed them, thus they died at the instance of the Lord.”  (Leviticus 10:1-2)

As most of you know, I am retiring from my full-time position as the rabbi of my synagogue at the end of June.  I will become Rabbi Emeritus.  Although some of you have asked, I am not retiring from life nor even from working.  I am remaining in the community.  I will continue my part-time college teaching and possibly do some part-time rabbinic work.  But after 43 years as a full-time rabbi, 32 at this congregation, it is time to pass the torch to someone else.

I am friendly with many of the Chabad rabbis, but I know they take a different view towards retirement.  One of the rabbis stopped by on Purim to give us mishloach manot (gift of food for Purim) and told me, “You know the Bible never says anything about retirement.”  In the Bible people worked until they were physically unable to work.  I have read what the Lubavitcher Rebbe, a truly great man, wrote about retirement.  He was opposed to it.  Work gives us a purpose and a person ought to keep working as long as possible.  He quotes the Talmud which teaches that the fruit of one’s own labor is worth nine times the fruit of someone else’s.  (Baba Metzia 38a)

Nonetheless, the Rebbe died without children and without ever appointing a successor.  This created conflict within the Chabad community.  It is the basis of the belief, shared by some in Chabad, that the Rebbe never truly died, but is the Messiah who will come back to life.  Even Moses, the greatest prophet, picked a successor in Joshua.  (Of course, Moses worked until he was 120 years old; he did not retire in his early 70’s.)  No matter how important our work, there comes a time to pass it on to someone else.

That bring me to our portion.  We learn of the tragic death of Aaron’s two oldest sons Nadav and Abihu after bringing a strange fire before the Lord.  Why did they die?  There is much speculation in Rabbinic literature and many answers.  But I want to share one of my favorites, which comes from the Midrash (Leviticus Rabbah 20:10).  Moses and Aaron would walk in front while Nadav and Abihu walked behind them.  They said to one another, when are these two old men going to die already so we can take over the leadership?  When will it be our turn?  They were wrong, although the death penalty seems a bit harsh for the crime of wanting their turn.  It is easy to understand their feelings.  I am sure there are talented quarterbacks out there waiting for Tom Brady to retire so they will get their chance.  (Yes, even the great Tom Brady will eventually retire.)

It is the nature of human beings to work and enjoy the fruits of their labors.  But it is also the nature of human beings to pick a time to stop working, step aside, and give the next generation an opportunity.  Not working does not mean sitting home doing nothing.  It is vital for retirees to find projects, organizations, part-time work, or some other activity to give their lives a sense of purpose.  (Of course, there is nothing wrong with using retirement to spend more time with grandchildren.  They need grandparents.)  But at some point our regular work must be passed on to a new generation.  We do not want the younger generation to become like Nadav and Abihu, waiting in the wings, sulking, and wondering when it will be their turn.

The idea that any worthwhile work continues over the course of generations perhaps was best expressed by the Christian theologian Reinhold Niebuhr.  “Nothing that is worth doing can be achieved in our lifetime, therefore we are saved by hope.”  Or we can look at the Jewish version of this idea.  “It is not our job to finish the task, nor are we free to avoid it altogether.”  (Avot 2:16, recently quoted on an episode of Blue Bloods.)  We work for our allotted time.  Then we step aside and let someone else continue the work.  That is the nature of humanity.

I am looking forward to my retirement.  I have so much I want to accomplish.


“Speak to the people of Israel, saying, These are the beasts which you shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth.”  (Leviticus 11:2)

The second half of this portion deals with the Jewish dietary laws.  There are certain animals, fish, birds, and even insects which may be eaten.  Most of the animal kingdom is off limits for food consumption.

Why does the Torah allow the eating of animals?  After all, in the Garden of Eden we were vegetarians.  As we read in synagogue on the last day of Passover, in the Messianic Age even animals will be vegetarian.  The lion will lie down with the lamb (actually Isaiah says the wolf will lie down with the lamb – Isaiah 11:6).  In the Torah, the eating of animal flesh is a divine compromise God makes after the Noah flood.  And the Jewish dietary laws are a further limitation on the eating of meat.  Maybe we humans should give up eating meat altogether?

As many of you know, I teach secular ethics on a college level.  One of the topics we discuss is the ethics of eating meat.  As I read my students’ papers, I am convinced that most of them are vegetarians or even vegans.  Yet I know that many of them probably wrote their animal rights papers while munching down on a hamburger.  Perhaps it is easier to say you are a vegetarian than to be a vegetarian.  As a philosophy professor, I try to teach both sides of the issue.

Those who favor animal rights often quote utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer.  He coined the term “speciesism”.  Speciesism is like racism.  To favor one species (humans) over another is equivalent to favoring one race over another.  Those who favor animal rights also quote deontological philosopher Tom Regan.  Just as humans are not objects but subjects, so animals are subjects of their own lives.  Both philosophers give powerful arguments for becoming vegetarian.

Others give philosophical arguments defending the eating of animals.  The strongest refutation is that in nature animals eat each other.  Lord Alfred Tennyson, in his poem In Memoriam A.H.H. wrote “nature red in tooth and claw.”   Benjamin Franklin defended eating fish by saying the fish eat each other.  But as we have learned from philosopher ass David Hume, “we cannot learn an ought from an is,” we cannot learn ethics from nature.”  Because animals eat animals does not mean that humans ought to eat animals.

There is a fascinating argument brought by some philosophers that hearkens back to Noah and the ark.  The important point for humans is the survival of species as a whole, not individual animals.  Philosopher Ronald Dworkin (1931 – 2013) has observed, “We tend to treat distinct animal species (though not individual animals) as sacred.  We think it very important, and worth a considerable economic expense, to protect endangered species from destruction.”

Michael Pollan, author of Omnivore’s Dilemma (2006) uses this approach.  He describes how he read Peter Singer’s Animal Liberation while eating a steak dinner.  Out of the cognitive dissonance of that moment, he thought about a defense for eating meat.  He quoted something written by Leslie Stephen in the 1800’s, “The pig has a stronger interest than anyone in the demand for bacon.  If all the world were Jewish, there would be no pigs at all.”  Animal species flourish because we eat them.  But Pollan makes another very important point; we must find ways to limit the factory farming and other suffering we inflict on the animals we eat.

From a Jewish perspective, many people quote the late Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865 – 1935), the first Chief Rabbi of what would become the state of Israel and a vegetarian.  Others argue that since God permits the eating of meat, it is arrogant to forbid what God has permitted.  So, the debate regarding eating animals continues.  I believe the Jewish dietary laws are a compromise worthy of ethical consideration.



“Aaron said to Moses, Behold, this day have they offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord; and such things have befallen me; and if I had eaten the sin offering today, should it have been accepted in the sight of the Lord?”  (Leviticus 10:19)

(Spoiler alert if you are planning to watch the Netflix show unorthodox, skip the next two paragraphs.)  I have watched all four episodes of this miniseries glued to my television.  It is the story of a young woman from the ultra-Orthodox Hasidic community in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, who decides to flee her husband and the stifling Orthodox rules of her life. Esty arrives in Berlin enjoying the freedom but struggling with the abrupt change in her life.  She throws her wig in a lake, immerses herself in the lake like a mikvah to purify herself from her old life, and finds a group of friends at a music academy.

Her husband Yankie, a deeply Orthodox but decent man, tracks her down in Berlin with the hope of bringing her back to Brooklyn.  He is a bit shocked to see her hair uncovered, her clothes less modest than what she used to wear, and perhaps most important, hearing her sing in front of a mixed group of men and women.  (In the ultra-Orthodox community, it is forbidden for a woman to sing in front of men.)  He tries to persuade her to come back, even willing to modify his own religious observance.  He says to her a line that stuck in my mind, “On the road there is a different Torah.”

The word Torah has a broad definition including all Jewish teachings and tradition, and the way that tradition expects Jews to live today.  For an ultra-Orthodox man to speak of “a different Torah” is a surprising insight.  We have all been going through a different Torah these past weeks.  The Torah as I learned it at the Jewish Theological Seminary was demanding.  On Shabbat and festivals like Pesach, it was forbidden to use the phone or other electronic equipment.  (Of course, at that point we had neither personal computers nor smart phones.)  A minyan was ten people (actually at that point, ten men) together in the same room.  Kaddish could only be said within such a minyan.  Passover seders were big family affairs with everyone in the same dining room.

Today during the corona virus crisis, we have a different Torah.  We are all isolated in our homes.  So we gather using the brilliance of technology to have a service, say kaddish, conduct a seder, and live a virtual Jewish life.  It is a different Torah.  But it is the Torah we need right now.  The book of Psalms teaches, “There is a time to act for the Lord, they have broken your law” (Psalms 119:126).  The Rabbis totally turned the meaning of this verse around.  “There is a time to act for the Lord, even if it means breaking your Torah.”  There are times when the Torah itself calls for breaking the Torah to do God’s will.

There is a hint of this idea in this week’s portion.  Aaron’s two oldest sons are killed bringing a strange offering to the Lord.   Even in grief Aaron must go ahead with the offerings and other rituals.  In the middle of these offerings, Moses rebukes his brother.  He made a mistake in the ritual.  Why did he forget the sin offering?  Aaron, usually a gentle soul, speaks back to Moses.  “Behold these things have happened to me today, and if I had eaten the sin offering as commanded, would it have satisfied the Lord.”  Moses accepts his answer.  There are times when following the law is not what we need.

Probably the most difficult part of this different Torah is the way I must conduct funerals, today.  (I have done too many these last few weeks.)  Outdoor service only, limited to ten people, no shoveling earth, no shiva, all the rules changed.  Nonetheless, this is what we need to do for the Lord.  “On the road there is a different Torah.”

I know that this shall pass, and life will eventually return to normal (may it happen soon.)  This period is a reminder that sometimes we cannot observe the Torah the way we used to.  Circumstances change, and so must our Torah change.  That is what God wants from us.

“And the swine, though its hoof is parted, and is cloven footed, yet it chews not the cud; it is unclean to you.” (Leviticus 11:7)
Once again, I was privileged to participate in the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) annual policy conference in Washington D.C. There I joined 18,000 others, Jews and Christians, Democrats and Republicans, whites and blacks, progressives and conservatives, Trump fans and Trump detractors, thousands of students and hundreds of rabbis, all sharing one purpose – how can we strengthen the relationship between the United States and Israel. This year I had a particular goal in mind – can one be both a progressive and a Zionist? I am aware of the pro-Zionism of the conservative right, after all President Trump and Prime Minister Netanyahu are best friends. But what about the progressive left?
As I interacted with many progressive Zionists, a scene from this week’s Torah reading came to mind. This week lists the animals that are kosher and the others that are not kosher. To be kosher, an animal must have a cloven hoof and chew its cud. The Torah mentions the pig, which has a cloven hoof but does not chew its cud. According to the Midrash, the pig holds out its hoof to try to show the world that it is really kosher. (Genesis Rabbah 65:1) But sorry bacon lovers, pig is not kosher. It shows the world one thing but is really another.
The same can be said about many (but certainly not everyone) in the progressive movement, so vocal on the political left. They tell the world they are not anti-Jew, just anti-Zionist. But question them, and their anti-Zionism quickly dissolves into antisemitism. Ask the group of women who tried to participate in the dyke march in Chicago in 2017 wearing rainbow Jewish stars. They were asked to leave. Jewish stars were banned from this gay march because people found the Jewish symbol a threat. But the next year in the same march, Palestinian flags were prominent. One can find similar stories among the leaders of such progressive groups as Black Lives Matter and the Women’s March. Let me not leave out the Labor Party in Great Britain, which has become vocally anti-Israel and antisemitic. In fact, one of the most popular speakers at the conference was a British Member of Parliament, not Jewish, who spoke about why she resigned from the Labor Party.
Can one be a progressive and a Zionist? I am not necessarily sympathetic to the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, but I believe it would be worthy to try to see the world through their eyes. To many progressives, the world is divided into the victimizers and the victims, the powerful and the powerless. According to this view, whites have the power and blacks are powerless, men have the power and women are powerless, straights have the power and gays are powerless. (I know what they think of me as a straight white man. Several have told me.) And Jews have the power and wealth in this country, as a Congresswoman recently reminded us. (“It’s about the Benjamins, baby.”) Meanwhile in the Mideast, Israelis have the power, while the Palestinians are powerless.
The answer, using the language of progressives, is that through most of human history, Jews have been powerless. Zionism is the movement to give the Jewish people a homeland, so they need never again be powerless. If Israel had existed before Hitler came into power, the Holocaust never would have happened. Outside AIPAC stood demonstrators, Jews and Arabs, calling for the destruction of Israel as a Jewish state. The goal of AIPAC is to strengthen the relationship between Israel and America to make sure this never happens.
But what about the Palestinians? Are they not the powerless ones today? They have a story and I think those who love Israel need to listen to their story. Palestinians have suffered as Jews have suffered. But as long as their goal is to destroy the Jewish state of Israel, there cannot be peace. There are voices on both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, who are looking for a compromise, a way to have a Jewish state alongside a Palestinian state. I heard many of these voices at AIPAC. They are Zionists in that they believe in the centrality of a Jewish state. And they are progressives in that they are searching for a way to give dignity and rights to Palestinians. The voices of these Zionist progressive must be strengthened. That is one reason I went to AIPAC.

“Then Moses said to Aaron, This is what the Lord meant when He said, Through those near to Me I show Myself holy, and gain glory before all the people. And Aaron was silent.” (Leviticus 10:3)
In this week’s portion tragedy hits Aaron and his family. On the eighth day of their formal inauguration into the priesthood, his two oldest sons Nadab and Abihu brings a strange fire before the Lord. A fire comes forth from the Lord and consumes the two young men. Moses tries to bring some words of comfort, how this fire shows how close the two men were to God. But Aaron reacts with silence.
The book of Ecclesiastes teaches, “there is a time to be silent and a time to speak” (Ecclesiastes 3:7). Often like Moses, we fill the world with words when silence is a much better option. How often to people confront those who have had a lose with empty bromides. “God does not give you anything you cannot handle.” “He is in a better place.” “God must have really wanted her.” “God must have His purpose.” The best reaction to these words is that of Aaron – silence.
In the Bible, when Job goes through his suffering, his three friends come to comfort him. For seven days they simply sit next to him, without speaking a word. Only after Job speaks do the friends respond. From this Jews learn one of the laws of visiting mourners in a house of shiva (the seven days of mourning). One simply comes in without saying a word. Let the mourners speak first. After the mourners speak, we can find the appropriate response. The truth is, there are no words. Your presence in the shiva home says it all.
When I was called down by the Broward Sheriff’s Office to the hospital the afternoon of the horrible shootings at Stoneman Douglas High School, I asked the head chaplain what I should do. He answered, simply be there. Let people sense your presence. I was with families who lost their children that day, and other families whose children were in surgery. I like to hope that simply being a presence was helpful. Silence says more than filling space with words.
Does speech have a place? Ecclesiastes says there is a time to be silent and a time speak. I have sat with people months after the loss, who have asked me, “Rabbi, why did this happen to me? Is my loved one in heaven? Does the soul survive death?” These questions also come up regularly in classes that I teach. This is the appropriate time to make sense of questions of life and death. I do not claim to have all the answers. But I do believe that we are more than our bodies. When our bodies die, there is a part of us that continues to exist, at least in some spiritual dimension. Can I prove it? No. But I have a deep religious sense that it is true, that somehow the soul survives.
An adult education class, a sermon, an article or book, is the appropriate to discuss these issues. A person who has just had a loss, at a funeral or shiva house, a person does not need words. They need our presence. There is a time to be silent and a time to speak. Wisdom is knowing when each is appropriate. In our portion, Moses confronts the grieving Aaron with words about God. Aaron can only be silent.
In 1964 Simon and Garfunkel recorded one of the great songs of the sixties, The Sound of Silence. Silence often says as much as words. There is a Hasidic tradition that says that the only words God spoke at Mt. Sinai was the first letter of the Ten Commandments, the silent alef. God at the most dramatic moment in history was silent. Yet that silence changed the course of history. Once someone asked the Tzartkover Rebbe why he had not preached for a long time. He answered that there are seventy ways to teach Torah, one of them is silence. May we all learn to communicate through the sounds of silence.

“Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not.”
(Leviticus 10:1)
Yesterday in my yizkor sermon for Passover, I raised a fascinating question. It is a question I have also raised in my introduction to philosophy class I teach at the local college. Imagine a very wealthy man who is also a drug addict. Because of his wealth, he is able to acquire whatever drugs he desires, legal or illegal. Does he have free will? To put the question in Passover terms, is he free or is he a slave?
Certainly, in one sense he has the freedom to acquire whatever he desires. Nonetheless he is a slave. He is a slave to his desires, his passions, or like many of us, his addictions. Passover is about the journey from slavery to freedom. We were slaves in Egypt, or to use the Hebrew, Mitzrayim. But the Hebrew term Mitzrayim has a second meaning. It is a “narrow place” where we are stuck. We may have the freedom to fulfill our desires in this narrow place. But we are still stuck. Whether it is addiction or some other area where we feel trapped, freedom means leaving such a narrow place.
Maimonides the great Jewish philosopher raised this issue long ago. He spoke about a man who defies a court order to give his wife a gett or Jewish divorce. By Jewish tradition he must deliver the Jewish divorce by his own free will. Maimonides teaches that the court can punish this man until he says, I want to give the gett. How is that possible? Maimonides says that people want to do the right thing. But sometimes their free will is trapped by their evil inclination. It is that evil that is preventing him from giving the Jewish divorce. We punish him to overcome the evil so that he does what he wants to do anyway. Therefore, he is giving it of his free will.
We think we are free but sometimes we are trapped by our own desires. This week’s portion speaks of the tragic deaths of Aaron’s two oldest sons Nadab and Abihu. They were killed when they brought a strange fire before the Lord in God’s holy place. Aaron and his family, being priests, were not even allowed to mourn them. There is much speculation by the Rabbis as to what these two young men did wrong to deserve such a severe punishment. Were they responsible for their actions? Let me give two answers cited by Rabbinic tradition as to the sins of Nadab and Abihu.
The first answer is that they were drunk. Immediately following these tragic events, the Torah teaches that the priests bringing the holy offerings cannot drink wine or other intoxicants. Drinking on the job is forbidden, particularly if your job is to bring offerings in Jewish tradition’s holiest place. Today we usually say that alcoholism is a disease. We try not to blame the person, saying that he or she is a slave to their own addictions. But we would hardly say that a person who has a drinking problem is free. They are slaves to their own addiction.
The second answer to the sin of Nadab and Abihu is what I sometimes identify as the Prince Charles syndrome. Sometimes I imagine Prince Charles in moments of weakness thinks about his mother Queen Elizabeth, when is the old lady going to die so I finally get my chance to take over. According to the Midrash, the two young men follow their father Aaron and their uncle Moses around saying, when are these two men going to die already so that we get our chance to take over. They are jealous of the older generation and their jealousy finally overtakes them. They act on their own, bringing an inappropriate offering which leads to their death. They are slaves of their own jealousy.
A fundamental teaching of Jewish tradition is that human beings have free will. (By the way, this idea is denied by most modern philosophers who say that even our will is determined.) Sometimes we believe we have free will, but our will is determined by addictions, desires, passions, inner-feelings that are often beyond our control. One of the great lessons of Passover is that we do not need to remain slaves to our desires. Going from slavery to freedom did not simply happen in ancient Egypt. In can be part of our lives every day as we overcome these inner desires.

“… for distinguishing between the pure and the impure…” (Leviticus 11:47)
A number of years ago I took a tour of a nuclear power plant. I remember it vividly. In certain areas we had to put on special clothes to cover our bodies. Certain areas we were not allowed to touch. And when we left certain areas we had to clean ourselves thoroughly. Of course, the concern was having any kind of contact with radioactivity. There is radioactivity all around us all the time. But in a nuclear plant, certain areas are more apt to be radioactive. And a certain level of radioactivity can cause illness, or even death. So we took precautions.
Radioactivity really exists, even if we cannot see it or feel it. We can measure it with a Geiger counter. And it can affect us. There are things out there that are part of the physical material universe, even if we need special instruments to measure them.
This tour of the nuclear power plant always comes to mind when I read these portions in Leviticus. They are certainly difficult for modern readers to understand. They teach that like radioactivity, there exists a reality that can affect us. But the affect is not physical but spiritual. There are certain spiritual realities in the universe, just as there are certain physical realities in the universe. These spiritual realities go under the Hebrew names Tahor and Tamei.
The word Tahor means pure, but not in a physical sense. It is a ritual purity. It exists on a spiritual plane. Certain animals are considered Tahor and these are the only animals we are permitted to eat. Naturally gathered water is the most important source of making something Tahor. A mikvah, a ritual bath containing natural flowing water, is a source of such ritual purity. There are a number of situations where a person immerses in the ritual bath and then becomes Tahor. In fact, the very beginning of the Talmud asks the question when we can say the evening Sh’ma. The answer is when the kohenim (priests) emerge from the mikvah, become ritually pure, and can once again eat the holy offerings. This takes place at sundown.
Tamei means ritually impure. Most animals are Tamei and may not be eaten. Certain body flows makes one Tamei, as do certain skin diseases. These strange laws will take up several chapters of Leviticus. But the greatest source of someone becoming Tamei is contact with a dead body. That is why the kohenim (priests) were not permitted to go to the cemetery or participate in a funeral. The life affirming rituals of the priests had to be totally separated from death.
Now we see the beginning of what these strange laws mean. To become Tamei (ritually impure) is to have an encounter with death. To return to being Tahor (ritually pure) is to visit flowing water; water in most religions is a sign of life. The Biblical laws of Tahor and Tamei are directly tied to the fundamental Jewish idea of the separation of life and death. These are not physical realities like radioactivity. But the Bible teaches that they are spiritual realities. I sometimes wish that there was a spiritual Geiger counter that could measure the spiritual realities of Tamei and Tahor. In fact Professor Menachem Kellner, a scholar on Maimonides, has written about a Geiger counter that can find holiness in the universe. “Radioactivity, of course, is present in the physical universe, while holiness is present only in the metaphysical universe.”
What do I find so attractive about these arcane ideas of purity and impurity? Perhaps I like the idea that reality is more than the material world. Perhaps I like the idea of a spiritual reality that can be measured, and of things becoming impure and then pure once again, and then perhaps holy. Shakespeare said it beautifully, putting words into the mouth of Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” There is more to reality than the material world.
My visit to a nuclear power plant made me realize there are things in the material world I cannot see such as radioactivity. My reading of Leviticus makes me realize there are things in the spiritual world I cannot see, but I can sense their presence. The purpose of religion is to make us sensitive to this spiritual dimension of reality.

“And the Lord spoke to Moses and to Aaron, saying to them, Speak to the people of Israel, saying, These are the beasts which you shall eat among all the beasts that are on the earth.”
(Leviticus 11:1-2)
In the New Testament, the Gospels quote Jesus as saying, “It is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a man, but what comes out of the mouth that defiles the man.” (Matthew 15:11) Certainly what goes out of a mouth, a person’s speech, is vital. But with all respect to my Christian friends, what goes into a mouth is also vital. This is becoming increasingly true today as our culture is becoming more conscious of everything we eat.
Religion is about holiness. And holiness is about rising above the animal within us. Watch animals eat. It is a purely biological act done as quickly as possible. One might say that animals eat but they do not dine. In our fast food world the same can be said about us humans. Many of us eat but we do not dine. We eat blindly in front of the television or we scarf down a hamburger quickly at lunch time. That is why religions try to discipline the act of eating. That is why people say grace before or after meals, why there are fast days, and why many religions including my own have dietary restrictions.
Despite the words in the gospel, even Christianity has dietary restrictions. Allow me to share one of my favorite true stories. I was taking a graduate seminar in political science taught by the former Swiss ambassador to the United Nations. He invited the entire class to his house for an authentic Swiss meal. It was a lovely evening. I had explained that I observe the Jewish dietary laws and cannot eat non-kosher meat. So while my classmates were enjoying an authentic Swiss beef dish (I believe it was some kind of beef burgundy), I ate a piece of salmon. Then he brought out dessert – real Swiss chocolate. Yumm! One of my classmates lamented that he could not eat it. He was a religious Catholic and had given up chocolate for Lent. For once I was able to eat something while someone else just ate a piece of fruit. We each had our dietary laws.
Dietary laws are not a major part of Christianity, although many Catholics long for the days when they had to eat fish on Fridays. Moslems have fairly strict dietary laws – no pork, no alcohol. In my recent trip to New York I found more and more Halal food trucks feeding the growing Moslem population. (Unfortunately I did not see any kosher food trucks.) Many people who observe Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism are vegetarians. After all, if one believes in reincarnation and the fact that human souls might be reborn as animals, one would not want to chance eating a relative.
This week’s portion lays out Judaism’s fairly strict dietary laws. From a Jewish perspective, in the perfect world of the Garden of Eden we were vegetarians. When the Messiah comes even wild animals will become vegetarians, at least according to Isaiah’s remarkable vision. Meanwhile, the Torah teaches that since we lust after meat, we are permitted to eat meat. But there must be severe limitations on the eating of meat. Not every animal is fit to eat. (Sorry to you bacon or lobster lovers.)
Only certain domesticated animals can be eaten. Such animals must chew their cud and have cloven hoofs. Fish must have fins and scales. The Torah lists a number of birds, particularly birds of prey, which are forbidden. Jews limit themselves to well-known domesticated birds such as chickens, turkeys, geese, and ducks. But for adventurous eaters, there are certain grasshoppers that are permitted. The Torah asks Jews to look out into the animal kingdom and say, these I can eat and these I cannot.
The Jewish dietary laws are also concerned with the proper way to slaughter an animal called shechita. Finally the laws call for the separation of milk and meat, symbolizing a separation of life and death. With every meal there must be consideration of what we are eating and whether it is fit to eat. (The term “kosher” means fit.) We bless our food, both before and after eating. With these laws we discipline the act of eating, and make every meal into a holy occasion.
“And God spoke unto Moses saying, do not drink wine and spirits, you and your sons with you, when you go into the Tent of Meeting, so you do not die. This is an eternal law throughout the generations.” (Leviticus 10:8-9)
The festival of Purim is over. I will admit that on Saturday night I did not allow my congregation to put out spirits. I am aware of the Rabbinic ruling that one should drink enough on Purim to be unable to differentiate between “blessed be Mordecai” and “cursed be Haman.” But our synagogue was filled with children and teenagers. And I have seen too much alcohol abuse, even in synagogue. I did put out several bottles Sunday morning, when mostly adults attended the service.
I come from a religious tradition that tolerates a certain amount of drinking. Passover is a few weeks away, where we are required at the seder to drink four cups of wine (cups, not sips). The Bible teaches that “Wine gladdens the heart of man.” (Psalms 114:5) All of our joyous occasions from Sabbaths and Festivals to brises and weddings involve the drinking of wine. Many synagogues end their early morning daily services by taking out the bottles and sharing a lechayim! In my synagogue, every Shabbat morning in the middle of services, a number of worshippers suddenly step outside. Informally, they call themselves the “Kiddush Club.” It is a chance to break into the Scotch and Bourbon before returning for the rest of the prayers. I have thought about putting a stop to this practice, but decided to let it continue. This too is part of tradition.
On college campuses where there are a number of Jewish students, there is usually a Hillel house and a Chabad house. (Chabad is a very Orthodox group that does outreach to Jewish students.) Both will sponsor Friday night dinners. But often Chabad attracts far more students. Why? At Chabad the alcohol flows, and they are not always careful about who is underage. (Please note, I am not anti-Chabad. While a graduate student in Berkeley, CA, I used to hang out at the Chabad house.)
So the enjoyment of alcohol is part of my tradition. Still, the tradition contains warnings. This week’s Torah portion tells of the sad death of Aaron’s two oldest sons after offering a strange fire before the Lord. What did the two young men do wrong? There are a number of answers offered in Rabbinic literature. But one answer is actually part of this week’s reading. Immediately after these events, Aaron and his family are warned not to approach the Holy altar inebriated. Perhaps the sin of the two young men was that they led the religious rituals while drunk. Certainly many a priest, minister, and rabbi needs one or more drinks before conducting worship services.
Earlier in Genesis we read about Noah and the ark. After Noah left the ark, he planted a vineyard, drank too much wine, and fell into a drunken stupor in his tent. The Torah barely hints that something unseemly happened between Noah and his son while he was drunk. It is noticeable that after these events, God no longer sees Noah as the person to carry his covenant forward. The covenant will wait until Abraham is born. Perhaps there is a warning about uncontrolled drinking.
I am not a teetotaler. I drank a shot of whiskey on Purim and I enjoy a good drink at a party. But I worry about how drinking is out of control in this county, particularly among young people. I am horrified by the accidents I read about caused by someone driving under the influence. And I worry about how the college experience has become centered on alcohol consumption.
Yesterday in a discussion with teenagers, I asked why so many young people drink. They answered that it takes away inhibitions and makes them feel good. They said it was fun. At least they are honest. If we can put a chemical in our body that quickly takes away inhibitions and makes life fun, why not indulge? Perhaps the need for instant gratification, so much part of our contemporary culture, has led to the easy self-medication of too much alcohol. How can we teach our young people that there are other ways to feel good and have fun, not dependent on a dangerous chemical like alcohol? (To be continued.)

“Then Moses said to Aaron, This is what the Lord spoke, saying, I will be sanctified in them that come near to me, and before all the people I will be glorified. And Aaron held his peace.”
(Leviticus 10:3)
This week’s portion begins with a tragedy in Aaron’s family. Aaron’s two oldest sons Nadav and Abihu bring a strange offering before God. A fire comes down and takes their souls. Moses, in a bizarre way, tries to comfort Aaron. His sons were kedoshim whole offerings made holy before God. They were taken by God because they had reached a higher spiritual level. They died for a higher purpose. Aaron and his remaining sons are not to fulfill the traditional rites of mourning. Aaron, confronted with such words of non-comfort, reacts with silence.
This very ancient idea, that people die to fulfill some higher spiritual need, is still around today. I particularly hear it regarding the victims of the Holocaust. Six million Jews died at the hands of the Nazis to fulfill a higher purpose. They are the kedoshim, holy ones, like Aaron’s sons. Because of their sacrifice we Jews received a Jewish state. I will admit that when I hear this claim – and I hear it often from defenders of Israel – I cringe. The Holocaust did not happen to fulfill God’s plan or purpose. It was not an act of God but an act of humanity. The Holocaust happened because human beings are capable of great evil.
The Jewish world commemorates Yom HaShoah – Holocaust Memorial Day – on the 27th of Nissan on the Jewish calendar. This year that falls this coming Sunday. What can we learn from these horrific events? I am ever cautious of Rabbi Yitz Greenberg’s words of warning to would-be-theologians. Do not say anything about the Holocaust that you are not willing to say before one and a half million murdered children. I want to be cautious. But there are things that need to be said. And perhaps the most important is that these events were not the will of God, nor were they meant to fulfill any kind of divine purpose.
Ethicists speak about a “moral community.” This is the community of people about whom one morally cares. In early human history the moral community was one’s own tribe. Eventually it expanded to one’s nation. But other nations, other races, foreigners were not included. They were the “other.” Human history at its best is an ever widening circle of human care. Not only was one’s one people included in the moral community. So was the stranger. (This is a central message of the Hebrew Bible.) In our own day the moral community has expanded to include women, people of other races and nationalities, children, the elderly, and the disabled. In the last few decades it has expanded to include gays and lesbians. We have begun to recognize the truth that every living human being is deserving of our moral care and concern.
What the Nazis and others of their ilk did was contract that moral community. German Aryans were part of the community. But Jews were outside the circle, as were Gypsies, and people of other races. So were the disabled, so were homosexuals. That is why a Nazi could be very kind to his wife, his children, his neighbors, his fellows, and then go to work each day at a death camp without a twinge of guilt. Nazis had no more trouble killing Jews than we moderns have killing vermin that we might find in our basements. Jews were outside the moral community.
The lesson of the Holocaust is that we are forbidden to ever exclude any human being from the moral community. Judaism taught this insight millennia ago with the words that every human being is “created in the image of God.” The French Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas studied with Martin Heidegger, one of the most important philosophers of the twentieth century. But Heidegger joined the Nazi party and never renounced this affiliation. In reaction, Levinas built an entire philosophy based on “the other.” The other lays obligations on us. We have a moral obligation to the other, whatever their background, simply because they are human. If there is anything we can learn from the evils of the Holocaust, it is this obligation we all have to the other. It is something worth remembering on this Yom HaShoah.


“Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.”
(Leviticus 10:1 – 2)

Prince William and Kate Middleton will be married on April 29, 2011. For a people who rebelled against the King of England some 235 years ago, we Americans are fascinated with everything about this wedding. Why have we become such royalty watchers? We want to know everything about the man who will be the future king of England and his beautiful bride.
I have a question regarding the royal family that has bothered me for years. William’s father Prince Charles is to be the future king of England. The years have gone by, Queen Elizabeth is elderly and Prince Charles himself, if he lived in America, would be collecting Social Security in two years. Why has the Queen not stepped down and given her son a few years to rule as king of England? (If royalty is not allowed to step down, I apologize for the question. We do not study such matters in Rabbinical school.)
Of course, this raises a deep question that affects many of us as we grow older. When do we step aside and allow a younger generation to take over? In America there are already plans to raise the retirement age to help with the budget deficit. This strikes me as a good idea. But there is a downside – by raising the retirement age, are we not making it more difficult for newer, younger workers to break in? Do older workers have a responsibility to step aside and make room for younger workers? For anybody approaching retirement age, this is a real question.
This is an issue raised by the Midrash on our portion this week. In the portion Nadab and Abihu, Aaron’s two older sons, bring a strange fire before the Lord. A fire swoops down from heaven and kills them. What was supposed to be a day of celebration for Aaron and his family, their installation into the priesthood, turned into a day of tragedy. There is much speculation by Rabbinic authorities as to the actually sin of Nadab and Abihu. Were they drunk? Were they arrogant? Did they invent their own ritual?
The Talmud cites a Midrash which gives a possible answer to the sin of the two young men. “Moses and Aaron walked on the path, Nadab and Abihu walked behind them, and all Israel walked behind them. Nadab said to Abihu, when will these two old men die already so that you and I can lead the generation? The Holy One said to them, we will see who will bury whom. R. Papa said, thus people say, many an old camel carries the hides of younger ones.” (Sanherin 52a) Of course this Midrash is a warning to the younger generation. Respect your elders and do not rush to replace them. Nadab and Abihu died because they would not wait for their turn.
Having said that, the Midrash also contains a warning to the elders. The day does come when the older generation needs to step aside and let the younger generation have their moment. We all have heard stories of business owners who never groomed younger people to take over their business. They held the reins too tightly. When they died or became too old to continue, their businesses fell apart. The book of Ecclesiastes says, “a generation goes and a generation comes.” (Ecclesiastes 1:4) One of life’s toughest challenges for the younger generation is to know how long to wait and for the older generation to know when to step aside.
I do not know if Prince Charles will ever rule the United Kingdom. I do know that it will be a bittersweet day for him; he will have to wait until his mom dies. And based on the longevity of members of the royal family, I presume that Prince William will be a grandfather before he gets his chance. Watching royalty is not my particular interest. Watching people does interest me. And one of life’s toughest questions – how do we pass leadership from one generation to the next. Maybe we can learn from the mistake of Nadab and Abihu.



“Speak to the Israelite people thus, these are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals.” (Leviticus 11:2)

A couple of years ago shortly before Passover one of my professors invited our entire class to his home for dinner. He was a former Swiss diplomat and wanted to feed us a European style dinner. I told him I would love to attend but could only eat fish and vegetarian food. While everyone else ate a beef dish, I had a delicious piece of salmon.
Then he and his wife brought out a delicious chocolate dessert. Having not eaten meat, I could enjoy the rich milk chocolate (remember they were Swiss, from a land known for its wonderful chocolate.) One of my classmates became upset. He was Catholic, had taken a vow to give up chocolate for Lent, and so had to do without. He asked if he could bring some home for after Lent.
The evening made me realize; even Christians have dietary laws. They are not as strict as ours. And I know that I was not as strict as a truly Orthodox Jew, who would not eat anything prepared in a non-kosher home. Such a Jew would heat up a kosher tv dinner with plastic cutlery. A Reform Jew on the other hand would probably ignore the dietary laws; but more and more Reform Jews are at least observing Biblical kashrut – no pork or shellfish.
If a Moslem had been invited, he or she would also have a limitation on eating meat. He would have to eat Halal, meat slaughtered according to Islamic law. Many Moslems, if Halal meat is not available, will buy kosher meat. Religious Moslems also will avoid alcohol. But it is the Moslem religion that has one of the strictest dietary regimens of all. For the entire month of Ramadan there is no food or drink from sunrise to sunset. I can fast for twenty-four hours on Yom Kippur and Tisha B’Av, but I cannot imagine fasting during daylight for thirty days in a row.
Eastern religions also have their own dietary laws. Most practice vegetarianism. If one believes in reincarnation and that a human soul may be reborn into an animal, then one would avoid eating animal meat. It is almost a kind of cannibalism. Besides, it is probably a healthier diet; Adam and Eve in the Garden were supposed to be vegetarians. (They were given only one dietary law, and they broke it.)
Why am I mentioning all these laws of different faiths? Because a large part of this week’s portion focuses on dietary laws. What animals can the people Israel eat? What birds? What fish? What insects? (Certain grasshoppers are actually kosher, although I will admit I have never eaten them.) Part of holiness is a limitation on the eating of certain foods.
Also every religious faith, in some way or other, puts a limit on eating. Not every food is proper to eat. There are times when certain foods may not be eaten. Catholics for many years would not eat meat on Fridays, and many still follow this for Lent. When I visited Utah I worried whether I would find a cup of coffee. Mormons do not use caffeine. And of course we Jews have fairly strict dietary laws; different Jews find different levels of observance of these laws.
Why should religion care what we eat? Christianity, reacting to Judaism, did try to remove dietary laws. So the New Testament teaches, “It is not what enters a man’s mouth that defiles a man, but what proceeds out of the mouth that defiles the man.” (Matthew 15:11) And yet as we have seen, even Christianity has its own dietary laws. And of course Christianity, like Judaism, teaches the importance of blessings before eating. The act of eating is not simply physical but spiritual.
Part of what religion tries to accomplish is to get humans to rise up above the animal within. This begins by controlling our appetite. Because we want it does not mean we ought to have it. Such discipline is true for all of life. But it begins with food. Holiness starts when we can look at a type of food and tell ourselves, “no.”



“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.” (Leviticus 10:8-9)

I received a phone call last week from one of our college students. He was writing a paper for a Jewish studies class, and wanted my help. “What is the Jewish view of marijuana?” His question brought back memories of the early seventies when I lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. Many of my friends would visit a Jewish center of prayer and study that attracted a lot of new age, hippie types. On Shabbat afternoon they would say the mincha prayers and eat the third Shabbat meal as the sun was setting. Finally it was time for havdalah, and they used cannabis for the spices, then quickly lit up their joints (something forbidden on the Sabbath). It was not my kind of place.
The Jewish view of marijuana use is clear. The Talmud teaches that “the law of the land is the law.” As long as it is illegal, it is forbidden for Jews to use it, even as spices for havdalah. However, in some states marijuana is legal for medical purposes, with a doctor’s prescription. And there is a serious move throughout the nation to legalize marijuana. I even read one somewhat tongue-in-cheek article that said legalizing weed would turn the economy around. It may be hard to sell homes or cars today, but selling marijuana would result in a swift economic upturn. What if it were legal?
The second Jewish question is whether such use would be harmful. The Torah teaches, “Take utmost care and watch yourselves scrupulously.” (Deuteronomy 4:9) The rabbis interpreted this verse to mean that we must carefully guard our body from any kind of harm. To quote the Etz Hayim commentary on this verse, “This verse has been used in contemporary times to declare smoking and unhealthy eating and drinking to be practices that violate the Torah.” (p. 1008) What about the use of pot as my contemporaries called it, or weed as the young people call it today?
I do not want to revisit the pros and cons of contemporary literature on the use of marijuana; it is readily available. I can only go with what my eyes see. When I was growing up in the sixties and early seventies, I found people who were stoned were often anti-social, unable to carry out a complete conversation. Today I sense is that many people who frequently use marijuana lose much of their ambition and motivation. They do not show up in class or take commitments seriously; much of the drive that humans need to succeed seems to disappear. In that sense, the drug strikes me as harmful.
Perhaps we can compare it to alcohol. Jewish tradition does sanction drinking in a limited responsible way. In fact, the Bible teaches that “wine gladdens the heart of man.” (Psalms 104:15) There is a tradition of drinking alcohol at joyous occasions including a bris and a wedding, and of course every Sabbath and festival. The Passover seder is marked by four cups of wine. And our festival of Purim permits a level of inebriation that would not be tolerated any other time of year. Many synagogues have little Kiddush clubs, a time at Shabbat services where people step out for a quick shot of wine, or heavier spirits.
Having said that, there are also severe warnings about the overuse of alcohol. In the Bible Noah and Lot both drank too much and got into trouble. The Talmud tells the story of how Rabbah had too much to drink at a Purim feast and killed Rav Zeira. He then miraculously brought him back to life. Rabbah wanted Rav Zeira to join him for the Purim feast the next year, but Rav Zeira refused. “You cannot always depend on a miracle.” (Megillah7b) This week’s portion has one the strongest warnings about the misuse of alcohol. After Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu died for the actions in the sanctuary, the Torah warns the priests about going up to the altar drunk. Perhaps intoxication was their sin.
This brings me to my answer regarding alcohol and drugs. Our faith is built on the notion that as human beings, we have free will and the ability to make choices. Any chemical that compromises our ability to make proper choices is suspect. Whenever one acts under the influence, whether too much wine or too much weed, one can wonder whether their choices are freely made. I would tell the college student writing the paper, and all Jewish college students, that getting high is not the Jewish way.


“And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not.
And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)

I write these words from a hotel room in Orlando, FL after driving up and down the state visiting college students from my synagogue. It is a trip I make every year. And it is a joy to watch our young people grow up.
When do young people make the transition from childhood to adulthood? In this week’s portion we learn of the tragic death of Aaron’s two oldest sons, who brought a strange offering before the Lord. What did they do wrong? One well-known Midrash (Rabbinic interpretation) teaches that they were in too big a hurry to grow up. They followed their father Aaron and their uncle Moses around asking, when will these two old men die already so we can take over. They wanted to take over before it was their turn.
I meet young people all the time who are pushing to grow up too fast. They have their bar/bat mitzvah and they are talking about driving. The start driving and they talk about moving out. They move out and they are talking about marriage and careers. It all happens so fast. I want to tell our young people, savor each moment and each step in the growing up process.
So when do we grow up? Jewish law identifies adulthood with puberty. When a young person is old enough to make a baby, he or she is ready to celebrate a bar/bat mitzvah. There was a time in Jewish history when thirteen year old boys were preparing for a career and twelve year old girls were given in marriage. Yet even the Talmud admits that thirteen is too young for some things; the age of marriage in the Talmud for boys is eighteen.
In America and other Western countries we have made eighteen the magic age of transition to adulthood. Young people are now legally adults. I pay for college for my eighteen year old son, but cannot view his grades without his legal permission. He is considered an adult and the college protects his right to privacy. An eighteen year old can sign legal contracts, join the military, and vote. But he or she still cannot drink (at least legally. There is a flourishing of fake id’s in these college communities.) We tell our eighteen year olds, you are an adult – but not quite yet.
Part of the problem is that we humans possess “collective knowledge,” as historian David Christian has taught. As the human race grows older, the amount of knowledge we need to function in the world increases exponentially. In Talmudic times, a young man or woman knew enough by the early teen years to function as an adult. In our times, the college students I visit, mostly in their early twenties, have years to go before they can fully function as adults in our complicated world.
When does adulthood truly begin? Obviously a big part of adulthood is becoming self sufficient economically. It takes years to reach a point where one can support one’s self. It takes even more years to reach a point where one can support a family, one’s spouse and children. It is small wonder that so many young people move back home while in their twenties. The empty nest takes years to become fully empty.
Even for those who are able to move out of their homes and become economically self-sufficient, true adulthood is difficult. It is so tempting to call mom and dad before every decision. As I parent, it feels good to have my children so dependent on me. And yet, I know that a key part of successful parenting is letting them become adults, which means making their own decisions. Children cannot become adults until their parents can let go.
Both as a rabbi and as a father, I try to guide young people into adulthood. Like Aaron’s sons in our portion, many want to grow up too fast. And like Peter Pan, many do not want to grow up at all. The journey to adulthood is a tough journey, particularly in our complex society. I hope my college trip, in some small way, helps these young people on that tough journey.



“And the Lord spoke to Aaron saying, Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons with you, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die – it is a law for all time throughout the ages.” (Leviticus 10:8-9)

I recently spoke to one of our young people (under age) after he drank two beers. I questioned his drinking and he replied, “Two beers are nothing. It takes at least six beers to get a buzz.” This was an insight into what is popular among our young people – drinking too much in order to get that buzz. For many it is more than feeling light headed and good; they get downright drunk. Sadly, some then drive, some mix their alcohol with drugs, and now and then one of them dies. It is a tragedy among our young people.
I admit that I enjoy an occasional drink at a social occasion. The Bible certainly praises the joy of alcoholic beverages. “Wine gladdens the heart of man.” (Psalms 114:15) We drink wine at our Sabbath and festival meals, two cups at a wedding, and four cups at the Passover Seder. (We even pour a fifth cup for Elijah, who visits every Seder in the world and drinks a little. Talk about being able to hold your liquor.) But the Bible also warns about over indulgence. Noah leaves the ark after the flood only to fall into a drunken stupor in his tent. And this week’s portion warns the priests serving in the Temple not to drink any wine or spirits.
The problem with our young people, and too many adults, is they need that buzz – they need the instant high. The buzz can come with too much alcohol. It also can come from drugs, both legal and illegal. For some it comes from other appetites – too much food, too much shopping, casual recreational sex, pornography. It is a human weakness to want immediate satisfaction, that feeling of being high. And alcohol is one of the quickest paths to instant satisfaction. For many of our young people, and many mature adults, it is also a quick path to personal destruction.
We all have an appetite for instant gratification. We satisfy that appetite in various ways, but one of the simplest ways is to put chemicals in our bodies to feel high, “for the buzz.” I grew up in the sixties where the casual use of drugs by young people became a norm. Today the children of my generation are becoming young adults. And they are growing up in a world where “chemicals to give a buzz” is an expected rite of passage. It is happening at a younger and younger age, often due to peer pressure. Sometimes it is parents who provide the alcohol to their young people. It is a sad reality of contemporary life.
Judaism teaches that real gratification comes not through chemicals but through work and effort. Real gratification comes through academic and professional achievement, developing skills in the arts or in sports, nurturing loving relationships with significant people, developing religious skills and working on one’s spiritual life, trying to improve the world through acts of loving kindness. Real gratification takes effort. But as a wise rabbi once taught, “According to the effort is the reward.” (Avot 5:27) Real satisfaction involves effort and pain, time and commitment. It does not come from mere chemicals.
How do we teach this lesson to our young people? Probably the best way is by example. Do our children see us overindulging in attempts to achieve instant gratification, particularly through drugs and alcohol? There is a story I often tell of the Hasidic rebbe and his followers, who see a drunken man in the gutter. Behind him is a younger drunken man who calls to the first, “Dad, wait for me.” The rebbe turns to his students and says, “I want to be like that man in the gutter.” The students are shocked, “That man is a drunk.” The rebbe replies, “There is a man whose son is following in his footsteps. I want my children to follow in my footsteps.”
Teaching children is the world’s toughest job. But somehow, we must give them the message that instant gratification is not a healthy path, that they should seek true gratification in their lives.



“And Nadab and Abihu, the sons of Aaron, took each of them his censer, and put fire in it, and put incense on it, and offered strange fire before the Lord, which he commanded them not. And there went out fire from the Lord, and devoured them, and they died before the Lord.” (Leviticus 10:1-2)

In this week’s portion, tragedy strikes. At the climax of the inauguration of Aaron and his sons into the priesthood, Nadab and Abihu his two oldest sons offer a strange fire onto the Lord. A fire comes down from God and devours him. Aaron in one day must go from great joy to mourning life’s most grievous loss. His brother Moses tries to say comforting words, but Aaron can only react with silence. Later Moses would criticize Aaron’s handling of the sin offering. Finally Aaron reacts speaks for the first time. He reacts in anger, “Behold, this day have they offered their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord; and such things have befallen me; and if I had eaten the sin offering to day, should it have been accepted in the sight of the Lord?” (Leviticus 10:19)
How do we react to overwhelming sadness? How do we react to such a tragic loss? The first thing to note is that Aaron is silent. There are no words that can possibly express his feelings. Later in the Bible, Job will suffer a series of terrible losses including the loss of his children. His three friends come to comfort him. They sit next to him in silence, waiting for him to speak first. From their behavior comes the law that when visiting a shiva home (a house of mourning), we wait for the mourners to speak first. There is nothing to be said. Simply being there has said it all. Mourners need our physical presence, not our words. Often silence is the best reaction to loss.
When Aaron finally does speak, he lashes out in anger. Many mourners today often react in anger to people who come to comfort them. Often they hear trite phrases and insensitive comments. “Your son is in a better world.” “At least you have other children.” Or worse, those who would comfort ball them out for what they could have or should have done. “You should have gone to (fill in the blank) and perhaps this would not have happened.” “You should have handled the funeral this way.” As a rabbi, I have heard all of these comments and worst said to bereaved parents.
Finally, a house of mourning is not a time to talk theology. I have definite beliefs about life and death, and there is a time to share them. I will speak in a sermon, or more important, in an adult education class. But at the time of bereavement, unless people ask particular questions, it is not appropriate to speak theology. Perhaps the best way to put it is that people need the presence of other people; words, no matter how carefully chosen, just get in the way.
Having said that, newly bereaved people often ask me to share words of wisdom. “Rabbi, why is this happening to me?” “Is my loved one in heaven?” “Why does God hate me?” What can I possibly say? I try to answer with whatever wisdom I can muster. Here is the essence of what I have said to people.
We humans are more than physical bodies. A body contains a soul, a neshama, literally “the breath of God.” The soul enters our body with a mission to accomplish in this physical world. Then the day comes when the body can no longer hold onto the soul. It may be because the body has simply grown old and worn down, as all material things must grow old and wear down. Or it may be that an illness or accident has injured the body so that it can no longer hold onto the soul. As we learn from the Bible, “And the dust returns to the earth as it was; and the spirit returns to God who gave it.” (Ecclesiastes 12:7) The soul is with God. Perhaps, as many mystics teach, the soul will be reborn in another body and have another opportunity to continue their work (reincarnation). Meanwhile, a loved one is with God. Our job is to keep their memory alive.
If every human has a mission to accomplish in this world, it is a particular tragedy when that mission is cut short by a premature death. The best thing we can do for the person who is no longer with us is to continue the work in this world which they can no longer do. We keep their memory alive through continuing the tasks that were important to them. Ultimately, doing acts of loving kindness in this world is the best path to comfort.



“Moses inquired about the goat of purification offering, but it had already been burned. He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons.”
(Leviticus 10:16)

At first my mother did not want me to become a rabbi. She felt that as a rabbi, I would be more concerned with laws than with people. Only after an encounter with a little boy in South Dakota was I am able to convince my mother that people would always be more important than laws. (For the full story, see my entry in Chicken Soup for the Jewish Soul.) Only then did my mother make her peace with my decision to study for the rabbinate.
My mother had known rabbis who looked at books and laws and rules rather than looking at people. In a way, her attitude reflected that of Moses our teacher, the very first rabbi. Moses used to say, “Let the law pierce the mountain.” (Sanhedrin 6b) The law is the law, whatever the consequences. People are there to serve the needs of the law, rather than the law serving the needs of people.
We sees Moses’ attitude clearly in this week’s Torah portion. Aaron has lost his two oldest sons when they offered a strange offering to the Lord, and were consumed by the fire. Aaron and his surviving sons were still in mourning. Moses chastised them for not properly eating the sin offering which had been presented on their behalf. Aaron turned to Moses and said in a sad voice, “See this day they brought their purification offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten the purification offering today, would the Lord have approved?” (Lev. 10:19) In other words, on this day of tragedy, does God really worry about all the rules. In the end Moses understood.
I have met people like Moses, who see the rules rather than seeing the people. I once officiated at a rather tragic funeral, trying to comfort the family and say the correct words. Somebody interrupted me in the middle of the service to tell me, “Rabbi, you are doing it wrong? You are not doing it by the rules.” I gave them a look to be quiet, but I desperately wanted to say, “Do you think this family cares about the rules right now. Take a look at what they need.”
Rules and laws are certainly important. Our tradition is built on the notion of covenant, of how we are to live our lives in a relationship with God. God is concerned with what we do, how we behave. Ours is a religion of law, of halacha which literally means “the way.” And yet, the rules are there to serve the needs of the people. We must understand what people need and where they are at before we can intelligently decide how to apply the rules. And sometimes, dare I say this, we have to set the rules aside when real human needs demand it. Ultimately, our religion is about people.
There was no greater law giver than Moses. He was able to commune face to face with God, and bring back the fundamental laws which form the foundation of our society. No one can detract from Moses’ greatness. But if Moses was a great law person, he was never a great people person. Through much of the Torah he loses patience with the people he was called upon to serve. People can be difficult. Or as my dad put it when I told him I wanted to be a rabbi, “You will be dealing with people. And people are the toughest commodity.”
Religion is about laws. Equally important, religion is about people. Or, as I have often told those who questioned me, “to be a good rabbi you have to love Jews and you have to love Judaism.” Ultimately, any faith must begin with people. Who are the people who are supposed to observe this law? How will this law affect their lives? Will it make them better, holier, bring them closer to God? If not, perhaps we should rethink this law.
Moses said, “Let the law pierce the mountain.” It took his people oriented brother Aaron to tell him, “My sons and I are in mourning. Set the law aside for the moment and look at us. People are more important than laws.” It was a message Moses needed to hear.



“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.”
(Leviticus 10:8-9)

Last week was Purim. I did my ritual duty by having a quick shot of whiskey after morning services. It was not enough to fulfill the Talmudic requirement, that one should drink enough to not distinguish between “blessed be Mordecai and cursed be Haman.” ( In our current times, I might say “blessed be Bush and cursed be Saddam.”) At least I had one little drink.
Our tradition sees moderate drinking as a sign of joy. As the Psalmist says, “Wine rejoices the heart of man.” (Psalms 104:15) We drink wine at our most joyous occasions, Shabbat and festivals, at a bris, at a wedding. At the Passover seder we are obligated to drink four cups of wine. The drinking is less moderate at our more raucous festivals- Purim and Simchat Torah. At our daily morning services, the men end with a shot of whiskey. Certainly wine and heavier spirits are considered a gift of God to increase joy.
Having said that, there is also a powerful warning that runs through our tradition about the misuse of alcohol. Noah was the father of humanity. Yet his first act after leaving the ark was to plant a vineyard, get drunk, and fall into a drunken stupor in his tent. This began a series of events that led to Noah cursing his son and grandson. The message is clear that alcohol abuse can send humanity down the wrong path.
In this week’s portion, Aaron and his sons are warned not to drink alcohol before conducting the priestly service. Immediately before the warning, the Torah tells of the death of Aaron’s two oldest sons. The Torah never gives the reason why they died. The rabbis speculated that perhaps they abused alcohol and went into the holy place drunk. Perhaps the alcohol helped lower their inhibitions and gave them courage to enter a place that was quite frightening.
Later Rabbinic teaching asked why it was forbidden for the priests to perform the divine service while drunk. One answer is that the joy of serving God should not come from artificial chemicals like alcohol. Rather, there should be a pure joy in conducting God’s service with a full heart and an aware mind. Alcohol diminishes that awareness.
Over the years I have watched people who misuse alcohol. They lose their inhibitions, doing and saying things they would never do nor say when sober. Self-control is a necessary part of being a decent human being. “Who is strong? Whoever controls their evil inclination.” (Avot 4:1) Alcohol takes away a vital part of that self-control. How often are we embarrassed by words and actions when we were drunk.
Today many people want instant pleasure in life. One of the easiest ways is to abuse chemical substances. Many misuse alcohol, illegal drugs, or even prescription pills to achieve an instant high. It is even possible to misuse legal substances from coffee to chocolate (my two favorites) for their chemical effects on our body. Perhaps the message of the Torah is that true pleasure comes not from chemical additives to the body, but from maintaining our mental faculties while serving God with joy.



“Then Moses said unto Aaron, This is what the Lord spoke saying, Through them that are near unto Me will I be sanctified, and before all the people I will be glorified, And Aaron held his peace.” (Leviticus 10:3)

The Tzartkover Rebbe often stood in silence instead of preaching. When asked why, he replied to his disciples, “There are seventy ways of reciting the Torah. One of them is through silence.”
We humans fill the universe with words. It is through speech that we most closely imitate God, Who created the world through words. And yet speech is not always appropriate. As we learn from the book of Ecclesiastes, “To every thing there is a season, and a time for every purpose under heaven … A time for silence and a time for speaking.” (Ecclesiastes 3:1,7)
In this week’s portion Aaron experienced the sudden tragic death of his two oldest sons. On the eighth day of their inauguration into the Priesthood, they brought a strange fire before God and were suddenly killed. Moses tried to comfort his brother, “This is what the Lord spoke saying, through those near to me will I be sanctified.” Aaron heard the words but did not react. All he could do was be silent. Moses tried to help with words, but Aaron did not need words at that point. Sometimes the proper reaction to tragedy is silence.
In the book of Job, the main character experienced a number of grievous losses – his wealth, his children, his very health. His wife told Job, “Curse God and die,” but Job replied “Should we accept only good and not evil?” (Job 2:10) His three friends came to comfort him. But they sat in silence next to him for seven days, waiting for Job to speak first. From this we learn that Jewish tradition that when visiting a shiva home (house of mourning), the visitors are silent until the mourners speak first.
Job called on God to appear before him and justify His actions. At the end of the book God appeared before Job with a long soliloquy. “Who is this who darkens counsel, speaking without knowledge? … Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations? Speak if you have understanding.” (Job 38:2,4) Job listened to God’s words, and in the end said, “Indeed I spoke without understanding, Of things beyond me, which I did not know … Therefore, I recant and relent, Being but dust and ashes.” (Job 42:3,6) Job spoke, when silence would have been the appropriate response.
We have known terrible tragedy these past months which have intensified during the Passover holiday. In Israel there have been random acts of terrorism killing innocents as they sat at a Passover seder, as they shopped in a supermarket, as they visited a nightclub or restaurant. Many of you have asked me for comments and insights. And I tried on the festival to speak intelligently of these events. In the same way I tried on the High Holidays to speak about the tragedy that hit our country on September 11.
Nonetheless, I cannot help but believe that sometimes silence is wiser in the face of tragedy. Like Job, we humans cannot understand the ways of God. When sadness hits, it is not the time to discuss theology. Words about God’s justice are scant comfort to the bereaved and the injured. Moses’ words were scant comfort to his brother Aaron following his tragic loss.
There is a time to speak and a time for silence. There are too many words in the world. Perhaps we need a little more silence in the face of questions we cannot answer.



“These are the living things which you may eat among all the beasts that are on the earth.”
(Leviticus 11:2)

This portion contains a list of animals, fish, and birds permitted and forbidden for food. Animals must have cloven hooves and chew their cud. Fish must have fins and scales. There is a long list of forbidden birds, mostly birds of prey, leaving mostly the standard domesticated birds. The Jewish people, in their quest for holiness, are limited in which animals they may eat.
The real question many people ask today is, what gives us the right to eat animals at all? Should we humans be permitted to eat other sentient beings? After all, in the Garden of Eden we were vegetarians. Is a vegetarian diet more in keeping with the ethics and values of the Torah?
Some would claim that a vegetarian diet is healthier. Certainly our bodies are built in such a way that we can eat and digest meat. One can eat an unhealthy vegetarian diet if there is too much sugar and too many carbohydrates. One can certainly eat a healthy diet that includes meat, poultry, and fish in moderation. The key is balance.
I have no argument with those who would argue the health of a vegetarian diet. My problem is with another argument I hear too frequently. What right do we have to eat our fellow creatures for food? After all, are we humans not also part of the animal kingdom? Why should we have dominion over any other animals?
I find this argument deeply troubling. True, in the Garden of Eden we were vegetarians. We were also animal-like, “naked and not ashamed.” After we ate from the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge, we left the Garden of Eden and raised ourselves above the animal kingdom. To quote Erich Fromm, “What is essential in the existence of man is the fact that he has emerged from the animal kingdom … has transcended nature. Once torn away from nature, he cannot return to it.” (Art of Loving, page 7) Humans are qualitatively different from animals, with rights that the animal kingdom does not have.
Today, there are many who would see humans as mere animals, perhaps with slightly more intelligence and vastly more destructive power. I understand that at the National Zoo in Washington there is a sign before the primate section speaking of the most destructive, dangerous primate on the face of the earth – humanity.
This week in particular we can see the danger in viewing humans as mere animals. Jews and Christians throughout the world are gathering to commemorate Yom HaShoah, holocaust memorial day. It is the day when we recall the deaths of six million Jews, and millions of other human beings, at the hands of the Nazis.
Why were the Nazis so successful? It began by taking away the unique humanity of Jews, and treating them as mere animals. That is why they could herd human beings into boxcars like cattle, ignoring their hunger, cold, and fright. That is why children could be wrested from the arms of parents. (The Torah forbids doing this even to animals.) That is why they Nazis saw the Jews as one may see vermin infesting their residence. They could send Jews to the gas chamber by day and sleep soundly by night, with no more guilt than one would feel dealing with the infestation of unwanted animals.
Humans are qualitatively different from animals. We are created in the image of God. Since we are at a different level of existence, the Torah beginning with Noah permits us to eat animals. Jews, in their quest for holiness, must limit what animals they eat. But to see humanity as no different from animals does not raise up the animal kingdom, it lowers humanity.



“Speak to the Israelite people thus, These are the creatures that you may eat from among all the land animals.”
(Leviticus 11:2)

Should we humans be allowed to eat animals? This week’s portion deals with dietary laws – what animals the Israelites were allowed to eat. Mammals, birds, fish, even insects were divided up into permitted and forbidden. It is as if God showed the animal kingdom to His people and said, “Eat this but not this.”
People often ask, “What gives us the right to eat animals at all.” Certainly, in the Garden of Eden we humans were expected to be vegetarians. God allowed us only fruit and vegetables, with the fruit of one particular tree off limits. (Of course, we ate from it anyway.)
Later in the story of Noah, humans were given reluctant permission to eat meat. However, there is a reminder that animals are living creatures; we are not allowed to eat the blood. The rabbis taught that it is forbidden to eat the limb of a living animal, an example of cruelty to animals. Some would see the permission to eat meat in the Noah story as a divine compromise. When the Messiah comes the lion will lie down with the lamb, even animals will become vegetarian. (As Woody Allen said, “The lion may lie down with the lamb, but lamb will not get much sleep.”)
Many use these Biblical arguments to advocate a vegetarian diet. They claim that eating meat is unhealthy, wasteful, or involves treating animals in a cruel way. These are all legitimate arguments for those considering vegetarianism. Non-vegetarians, myself included, will argue that since the Torah explicitly permits the eating of animals, there is no requirement that we become vegetarian.
There is another argument used by some animal rights advocates that is far more troublesome. I call it the “how can we eat our cousins” argument. These people argue that to say we are better than animals is speciesism. We are animals no difference in essence from a chimpanzee, a horse, or a dog. We may be slightly farther along on the evolutionary chain, but we are still mere animals. Eating animals is a kind of cannibalism.
The central lesson of the Bible is that we humans are qualitatively different from animals. We are created in the image of God. We have the ability to make moral choices. We are not bound to simply follow our appetites. Certainly we cannot be cruel to the animal kingdom. Nor can we say that we are mere animals.
Scientists hypothesizes that evolution is a blind force, leading from lower to higher forms of life and eventually to us. Many who challenge evolution from a religious perspective are not bothered by the fact that life evolved gradually. The problem is the underlying assumption that we humans are mere animals.
The Torah is concerned with how we can raise ourselves above the animal and achieve holiness in our lives. That quest for holiness underlies the dietary laws found in this week’s portion.