A Consuming G-d

This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Eliav Grossman

The story of the deaths of Nadav and Avihu recalls another biblical tale, the episode of Noah’s drunkenness (Gen 9:19-29). Details common to both stories include:

1) Nadav and Avihu enter a “tent” (אהל מועד) in which their presence is unwanted; Ham inappropriately enters Noah’s tent (ויתגל בתוך אהלה) when his father is exposed.

2) Nadav and Avihu seem to violate the sacred boundaries of G-d’s domain; Ham intrudes on his father’s privacy.

3) Nadav and Avihu’s corpses are removed by their relatives, who carry them out in garments (בכתנתם); Ham’s actions lead his brothers to cover Noah’s exposed body with a garment (שמלה).

The Torah does not explicitly state the Nadav and Avihu were drunk when they entered the Tent.  However, immediately following the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, G-d forbids Aaron and his sons from drinking alcohol. A midrash argues that this prohibition implies that Nadav and Avihu had consumed wine, and that this was the cause of their death.

This midrash suggests an additional thematic parallel between the two stories.

The prohibition for priests to drink alcohol concludes with a directive encompassing the general task of the priest:

ולהבדיל בין הקדש ובין החל ובין הטמא ובין הטהור

to distinguish between sacred and profane, pure and impure.

Noah’s incident of intoxication begins:

ויחל נח איש האדמה ויטע כרם

Conventionally this means that Noah began (ויחל) to work the land and planted a vineyard, but the rabbis offer another reading (Gen. Rab. 36:20):

נתחלל ונעשה חולין

he [Noah] degraded himself and became profane.

Thus, for both Noah and Nadav and Avihu, wine leads to behavior that crosses the boundary of profanity.

I suggest one further parallel between the two stories.

Noah’s night of inebriation is preceded (in the same chapter) by G-d’s granting him the allowance to eat animal meat (Gen 9:2-4), and the prohibition to consume the animal’s blood.[1] In Parashat Shemini, the deaths of Nadav and Avihu are followed (in the next chapter) by lists of kosher animals and the physical traits that characterize them.

We thus have two stories in which characters are “profaned” and sacred boundaries are trespassed after wine-drinking, with such boundary-violation textually proximal to restrictions on the consumption of animal meat. Briefly, I would like to suggest a possible explanation for the relationship between consumption and inappropriate intimacy with G-d.[2]

Jacques Derrida says:

Eating G-d’s words constitutes a parallel to the Holy Sacrament–here too, a divine transubstantiation takes place. And that has left its mark on modern hermeneutics, which of course has its roots in biblical interpretation…hermeneutics is, after all, precisely about assimilating that which is foreign. What is radically alien in the other doesn’t have a chance–it will be digested, melted down in the great tradition, wolfed down mercilessly.[3]

Eating involves integrating a foreign item into the body such that the item is no longer foreign. According to Derrida, eating can also characterize the interpretation of a divine (or any) text. The text is initially foreign and unknown. Interpreting the text involves making the text intelligible and ascribing it a meaning that its interpreter can understand.

Maybe Nadav and Avihu demonstrate the limits of Derrida’s metaphor. Eating as a mode of knowing the Other must not hold true for knowing G-d of the Torah (though Derrida obviously uses Christian imagery, the point holds here as well). Nadav and Avihu’s entrance to the אוהל מועד is an attempt at intimacy with the “radically alien” G-d. In Derrida’s words, they try to assimilate that which is ultimately foreign and transcendent (G-d) into a framework of familiarity and intelligibility. But they cannot; their offering remains an אש זרה, a “foreign item.” G-d will not allow divine Otherness to be wholly erased; there must remain something foreign and transcendent.

Nadav and Avihu’s attempt to familiarize the foreign G-d is motivated (according to the midrash) by excessive wine-consumption and is followed by restrictions on meat-consumption. The limits of the human relationship with G-d, our Parasha tells us, can be expressed well through a metaphor of restricted eating. G-d resists being “melted down” such that there is no longer anything “radically alien” to divinity. Not everything is food; likewise, G-d cannot be “digested” in a relation of immediacy.

[1] And see Lev. Rab. 12:1, which links wine and blood in the context of our Parasha:

יין ושכר אל תשת. הדא הוא דכתיב (משלי כג, לא): “אל תרא יין כי יתאדם” – מהו “כי יתאדם”? כי יתאוה לדם נדה ולדם זבה.”כי יתן בכוס עינו” — בכיס כתיב, לשון נקי הוא כדכתיב (שם א, יד) “כיס אחד יהיה לכלנו” (שם כג, לא) “יתהלך במישרים” — סוף שאשתו אומרת לו כשושנה אדמה ראיתי ואינו פורש.  אמר רבי אסי אם תלמיד חכם הוא סוף שמטמא את הטהור ומטהר את הטמ

I am almost certain that this midrash is poking fun at the Christian eucharist. It speaks of wine “becoming” blood (i.e. drinking wine leads to forbidden sexual activity with a menstruant), but satirizes this transformation, as the “cup” of wine (or, the chalice which holds the eucharist) is actually a symbol of female genitalia.

[2] This explanation addresses the meaning of the story of Nadav and Avihu. A similar explanation can be adapted for the Noah episode, but this is not the place for it.

[3] Jacques Derrida, “An Interview with Jacques Derrida on the Limits of Digestion.”

Eliav Grossman (SBM 2013)  is a junior at Columbia College majoring in Religion and Philosophy. 

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