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The sons of Aaron, Nadab and Abihu, each took his fire-pan, they put fire in them and placed incense upon it; and they brought before God an alien fire that He had not commanded them (Vayikra, 10:1).
Rashi cites the statement of R' Yishmael in the Talmud that the transgression of Nadab and Abihu was that they drank wine before entering the Sanctuary. This statement appears remarkable. The Torah is explicit that their sin was the introduction of an alien fire, an eish zarah. How and why does R' Yishmael give another reason, which seems to contradict the Scripture?
The answer is that R' Yishmael is not at all contradicting the Scripture. Rather, he is offering an interpretation thereof. While eish zarah is literally “an alien flame,” it is also figuratively “an alien passion.” R' Yishmael's interpretation is of singular importance today.
Nadab and Abihu were extraordinarily great men, so much so that Moses said that he considered them greater than himself and Aaron (Rashi, Leviticus 1:3). If they drank wine before entering the Sanctuary, it was not because they were out partying. Rather, they knew that in the Sanctuary they would have a spiritual experience. They believed that by drinking wine they would attain a state of mind more conducive to a spiritual experience. After all, the psalmist says, “Wine makes glad the heart of man” (Psalms 104:15). By relieving a person's tension, wine enables one to have greater joy, and joy can enhance a spiritual experience. It was for the intensification of the spiritual experience that they drank wine.
Why, then, were they so severely punished? Because one should not seek to enhance a spiritual experience by artificial means. Intense spiritual experiences should come as a result of prayer, Torah study and meditation, with contemplation on the Infinite, and not by altering the metabolism of the brain with a chemical.
In recent times we have suffered a plague of drug use which has destroyed many lives, ruined the minds of countless youth, and still poses a threat to the very survival of our society. Several decades ago, there arose a false prophet who advocated “mind expansion” by use of potent mind-altering chemicals such as LSD, claiming that it would give people a perception of reality that they could not achieve otherwise. Many people believe that intoxicating the brain with alcohol, marijuana or other chemicals improves one's functioning. Many minds have been destroyed as result of this misconception.
R' Yishmael's point is that one should not seek spiritual enhancement by altering one's state of mind with a chemical. Nadab and Abihu's attempt to do so was introducing “an alien fire” into the Divine service. Now, as then, chemical alteration of one's state of mind is destructive.
I arrived at this interpretation of R' Yishmael's statement as a result of my clinical experience in treating people who have resorted to chemicals to alter their state of mind. I was thrilled to subsequently discover that several Torah commentaries had offered this interpretation.