Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today – Shemini

Turn It Again: Torah Wisdom for Today

In Pirkei Avot, a book of maxims in the Mishnah, an ancient rabbi, Ben Bag-Bag said about Torah study, Hafokh bah, vaHafokh vah, dkhola bah.” Turn it over and over, for everything is in it. For two thousand years, thats what Jews have done. Here is another turning.

Sacred and Profane: Altered States in the Torah

People in all times and places have sought ways to induce altered states of consciousness. Often, these changed states were utilized for everything from healing, divination, or as part of traditional spiritual ceremonies. Fasting, meditation, breath work, dance, and song, as well as the use of psychoactive substances have all been employed. Simultaneously, in contemporary America, people are more likely to turn to drugs as an antidote to hopelessness and despair than for those traditional purposes. According to the 2023 National Drug Hotline report, for example, Oregon has the worst drug problem in the nation.

What does Judaism have to say about altered states of consciousness? In parshat Shemini (Leviticus 10:9-10), we read, “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, for you must distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the impure and the pure and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which YHVH has imparted to them through Moses.” (The Contemporary Torah JPS, 2006)

A close reading indicates that wine and intoxicants are permitted, as Shabbat kiddush and “l’chayim tables” demonstrate.  Moshe’s ascent to the top of Mount Sinai for forty days itself also shows the spiritual insights that can originate from fasting and solitude, as do many other Jewish mystical practices.

On the other hand, one is required to have a clear head when serving either the Jewish people or God. Standing in front of God in the ancient Mishkan or Tabernale?  One must be sober.

This notion of communal responsibility and sobriety is extended to legal matters. The Talmud (Eruvin 64) tells a story in which a person approaches Rabban Gamliel for a legal ruling. He turns to a fellow rabbi with whom he had been drinking, and they decided that they would not issue a legal ruling until the effects of the wine wore off. This became a basic law in Judaism, so that Rashbam, an 11th-century French commentator, notes that “a judge or teacher in a state of intoxication must not issue any halachic rulings.”

These teachings emphasize Judaism’s commitment to a life of moderation, seeking a middle path between abstinence and indulgence of many human appetites. In an age where addiction is rampant, abstinence for some may be the middle path. For the rest of us, the Torah reminds us that it is a human need to carve out time dedicated to experiencing the sacred dimensions of time without chemical help. Do you currently schedule moments for wonder, awe, inwardness, and holiness into your calendar? If not, how might you include this as an important priority?