Apparently, you can’t just have a glass of wine whenever you want. If you are a Kohen or a Rabbi, you happen to be in a profession that somewhat curtails your alcohol consumption. Generally speaking, a person that serves in either one of these functions is permitted to drink as much as any other person would. Parashat Shemini imposes limitations on this rule that can remind us of a crucial message.
“The Lord spoke to Aaron saying: Do not drink intoxicating wine…when you come to the Tent of Meeting… and to teach the Children of Israel all the decrees that the Lord had spoken to them through Moses.” This verse teaches two negative commandments. One is that a Cohen cannot perform the Temple service after consuming alcohol. The second forbids a Rabbi from issuing Halachic legal rulings after drinking. The Sefer Hachinuch, an anonymous work from 13th century Spain that elaborates the laws and reasons of the 613 mitzvot, says the reason for these laws is simple and therefore does not require elaborate explanation. He writes that one cannot be involved with matters that are of the absolutely utmost value, like something that has to do with the Temple or with Torah teachings, without devoting complete attention and concentration to them. Rabbi Yitzchok Hutner (1906–1980), the European born and educated rosh yeshiva of Chaim Berlin in post WWII New York, used to ask what the most important thing is that you can teach your child. He would answer that you should show them how to start a fire with the sun’s rays using a magnifying glass. If you leave a dry leaf in the sunlight all day long, it will not ignite. To harness the power of those rays, you must assemble them all together – you must focus them. That will demonstrate how much a person can accomplish after he focuses his energies.
We often do important things without freeing ourselves of distraction. It’s easy to talk to our spouses, family members and friends while texting on our cellphones or browsing through the newspaper without even realizing how it’s diluting our concentration. We have the power to galvanize our important relationships with others and with the Almighty if we are able to assemble all of our mental and emotional power, at least sometimes, to all be focusing on one thing at the same time. These mitzvot – the fact that a Kohen or Rabbi can’t just have a glass of wine whenever they want it – can serve as a wakeup call that demands us to break that habit and harness the power of focused effort and attention that they deserve.