Strange fire of substance abuse

Special to WJW

This week’s Torah portion is Shemini, Leviticus 9:1-11:47.

This week’s Torah portion contains one of only two stories in the entire book of Leviticus. Leviticus opens by describing the ritual of sacrifice, which was to be conducted by Aaron and his sons. Moses initially was given authority to demonstrate the sacrificial service, but was then told to transmit this authority to Aaron’s family after seven days. Thus, on the eighth day (yom hashemini), Moses consecrated them as the first priests (kohanim). However, in the midst of this celebration, two sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, offered “strange fire” before God. This crime was so heinous that God was incensed and took their lives.

The Torah is silent in describing the nature of Nadav and Avihu’s offense. The “strange fire” must have been something very bad, but no explanation is given. The rabbis of the Talmud and midrash, of course, use this silence to put forth their own ideas. One which I find plausible is that Nadav and Avihu were intoxicated when they approached the altar. This idea is based on the Torah’s warning elsewhere that the kohanim were to avoid drinking intoxicants when offering the sacrifices.

The plausibility of this suggestion is based on the issues people have always faced regarding the misuse of chemical substances. Once, Jews believed that we were immune to the scourge of alcohol abuse. “Jews don’t become alcoholics because we drink in sanctified settings,” was a bubbe meise I would often hear. And if a member of our family would get drunk too often, we’d excuse it by saying that we love them too much to get angry at them.

More than 40 years ago, I was part of a task force in New York City which began to explore this issue in depth. The stories we heard of alcohol and drug abuse were, at first, difficult to believe. Then we realized that nobody is immune to the issue: it affects religious Jews as much as it does those who are secular. Young and old suffer equally.

One result of our task force was the formation of JACS—Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons and Significant Others. Based in New York, JACS has found clients all over the country. They traditionally sponsor semi-annual retreats, and have worked with local synagogues and JCCs to establish Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. Most importantly, they have made it kosher to talk about this issue and to recognize that Jews must acknowledge its existence.

I would like to think that Nadav and Avihu might have avoided their severe punishment had someone been willing to help and understand their problems. Let’s hope that we can be more sensitive and helpful to those among us who suffer from drug and alcohol abuse.

Questions for thought and discussion:

Do you know anyone who has issues of drug or alcohol abuse? How can we as individuals and as a community provide help for them?

Do you know the resources available to help people who are substance abusers?

Is the current epidemic of opioid addition different from alcoholism?  Does it affect Jews more than other forms of substance abuse?

Rabbi James Michaels is the director of pastoral care at the Charles E. Smith Life Communities in Rockville.

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