A chassid of R. Mordechai of Lechovitz was a timber merchant. As happens from time to time, the price of lumber fell drastically and the merchant was about to suffer a major setback. After walking around despondent for several weeks, the chassid went to his Rebbe for a blessing.

R. Mordechai answered him: “Our Sages teach that when a person is in distress, the Divine presence joins him in his anguish. When you are suffering because of the money you have lost, G‑d shares your distress. Now tell me: Is it worthwhile to cause G‑d suffering because of a few pieces of wood?”

Parshas Shemini

This week’s Torah reading contains the commandment: “Do not drink intoxicating beverages... when you come to the Tent of Meeting,” prohibiting priests from bringing sacrificial offerings when inebriated.

Seemingly, the intent of the command is so obvious that it need not be stated. When a priest is drunk and no longer in control of his faculties, he is obviously not fit to offer a sacrifice to G‑d. Who would think otherwise? Is there any way one could think that it is fitting to serve G‑d in such a manner?

While the straightforward interpretation of verse must be upheld in the context of Torah law, on the non-literal level of interpretation referred to as Derush, there is room for an extended interpretation.

The Hebrew word for sacrifice, korban, shares the root kerov, meaning “close.” Offering a sacrifice meant coming closer to G‑d. At present, our prayers take the place of sacrifices and it is through prayer that we develop intimacy with Him.

Now a person so preoccupied with his material affairs that he cannot think of the spiritual can be considered as drunk. He may pray, but when he prays he is thinking about his material needs. For whom is he praying — for himself or for G‑d? Prayer as connection to G‑d — indeed, prayer for any purpose other than serving his own needs is beyond him.

Just like a drunkard is so stupefied that he cannot appreciate the reality he confronts; so, too, such a person cannot conceive of the real intent of prayer. He cannot appreciate what it means to pray for the reasons for which G‑d intended us to pray.

There are others who are spiritually drunk, who seek spiritual satisfaction rather than material satisfaction. But they are still praying for their own benefit. They conceive of prayer as a time to satiate their yearning for G‑dliness, to take pleasure in closeness to Him. They too are “under the influence” and unable to see past their own personal wants and desires.

What is the alternative? To come close to G‑d for His sake, not for our own. On a personal level, we are all familiar with self-serving love, coming close to another person for one’s own gratification. Yes, at times, that may also make the other person feel good. But one is taking as much — or more — than giving.

But there is a deeper kind of love, one where we devote ourselves to another person for that person’s sake, where we care about them and are willing to sacrifice ourselves on that person’s behalf. There is no expectation of receiving anything in return; we make the commitment out of love, because we feel for that person.

Such a relationship should be paralleled in our Divine service. G‑d should be served and we should come close to Him without any ulterior motive — neither material or spiritual. Such a commitment can only be genuinely made when one is level-headed and looking at the world objectively. Only when a person is in control and makes decisions with reserve composure can he truly act for others.

Looking to the Horizon

There is an interesting halachic dimension to the prohibition against priests offering sacrifices while intoxicated. As a safeguard to that prohibition, our Sages forbade the priests scheduled to serve in the Templeon a particular day from drinking wine that day. Moreover, our Rabbis maintain that even after the destruction of the Temple, this prohibition is relevant. For at any moment the Temple may be rebuilt and the priests will be called upon to perform their sacrificial service. Accordingly, they argue, it would be appropriate to forbid priests from drinking wine at any time, for at any moment, Mashiach may come and cause the Temple to descend from heaven. Thus they might find themselves intoxicated when they are called on to serve in the Temple.

Ultimately, the halachah does not follow this argument, for if so, the priests would be forbidden from drinking wine when making Kiddush and Havdalah and performing many other important mitzvos. But the fact that there is such an argument communicates an important message. Our Sages did not think of Mashiach’s coming and the rebuilding of the Temple as an abstract wish of the far-off future, but instead a real factor, affecting their lives in the here and now. They understood Mashiach in the present tense and were willing to consider making decisions in Torah Law that reflect the immediate possibility of his coming.