The Ecstasy of Politics
Thank you for speaking to me the other
day. Your encouraging words were truly helpful to me in my detox process.
As I shared with you, I was one of those wayward teenagers who began using
alcohol and drugs recreationally – as a social thing, bored and looking for
fun. Then I became more and more dependent on them until I turned into a full
blown addict. Procuring a drug became my daily and nightly obsession. I lied,
stole money, betrayed people I loved and those that loved me – anything to
get my high.
Even with my life completely out of control,
I could not get out of my trap until I did some real irreversible damage which
I could no longer ignore (as I shared with you, and would rather not put it
into writing). Only then, when I hit “rock bottom,” did I began reaching for
After years, literally years of rehab,
I am just beginning to see some light at the end of the tunnel.
My question to you is this: Beyond the
addictive, destructive and unhealthy effects of substance abuse, is there
any thing wrong with achieving a high through foreign substances? In other
words: if drugs and alcohol would not have any adverse effects would the Torah
have a problem with their use to reach a spiritual high?
I know that this question may seem trivial
compared to my dreadful experiences. It may even seem as if I am trying to
find some justification for their use. I assure you that this not the case.
But it does intrigue me to understand the nature of the high induced by drugs,
and if it can play a role, when used properly (if that is even possible),
in achieving transcendence?
I appreciate your help, your vote of confidence
and above all your contagious hope that gives me strength to continue my fight.
David [name changed],
Beyond the personal words of encouragement…
I first hesitated to reply to your question, precisely because it seems completely
out of place. You of all people know the horrible abyss of drug addiction.
So why bring up even a slight consideration as to the possible benefits of
an induced state of altered consciousness?
But then I reconsidered and realized that
many others may have the same question. Additionally, it seems important to
discuss not just the symptoms, but the actual roots of addiction.
You may be surprised to know that your
question is directly addressed in no other place than the Bible itself. Yes,
long before the plague of substance abuse in our times, we have a precedent
that clarifies for us this topic, as well as many other issues around the
timeless search for spiritual transcendence.
The opening of this week’s Torah portion
concludes a mysterious event that took place three chapters back:
After the Sanctuary was finished, the Torah
tells us that the two elder sons of Aaron, Nadav and Avihu, “offered a strange
fire before G-d, which He had not commanded.” The result: “A fire went out
from G-d and consumed them, and they died before G-d.”
Now, in this week’s portion, following
the deaths of Nadav and Avihu, G-d specifically commanded that their example
should not be repeated: “And G-d spoke to Moses, after the death of Aaron’s
two sons, who came close to G-d and died... Speak to Aaron your brother, that
he [be careful to] not come at all times into the Holy... so that he not die...
[but] with this shall Aaron come into the holy place” (Leviticus 16:1-2),
and the Torah continues with the conditions how to enter the Holy of Holies.
Rashi explains that this command comes immediately after the statement of
the death of Aaron’s sons, to warn him that his service of G-d should not
be like that of his sons.
What lies behind Nadav and Avihu’s actions?
Did they behave properly or not? On one hand, they were clearly great men
who “came close to G-d;” on the other hand, “they died” because they “offered
a strange fire before G-d, which He had not commanded.” And G-d is warning
Aaron not to behave like them.
And what is the meaning of the “strange
fire” that they offered?
Above all, if Aaron’s sons behaved wrongly
why is it important to document their sad story, which presents them in a
The key to the story lies in the word “fire.”
Fire is passion. All passion comes from
the fire of the soul, “the soul of man is the fire of G-d.” Like a flame,
a soul always reaches upward, licking the air in its search for transcendence,
only to be restrained by the wick grounding the flame to the earth. The soul’s
fire wants to defy the confines of life; the free spirit wants to soar ever
higher, always reaching for the heavens.
Like fire, the spirit ablaze cannot tolerate
the mediocrity and monotony of the inanimate “wick” of materialism. Its passion
knows no limits as it craves for the beyond.
But just like it can be the source of our
greatest strength, the fire of the soul, like any fire, can also be the cause
of great destruction.
Therein lays the story of Nadav and Avihu,
two extraordinary souls:
When the holy Sanctuary was finished Aaron’s
sons, deeply spiritual individuals, were drawn to enter the holiest sanctum
on earth. They wanted to bask in the ecstasy of the Temple’s pure spirit.
Indeed, the behavior of Aaron’s two sons
was not a sin; it was an act of great sanctification, as Moses tells Aaron
immediately following the tragedy: “This is what G-d spoke, saying: 'I shall
be sanctified by those who are close to Me.'” The sages explain: Moses said,
“Aaron, my brother, I knew that the Sanctuary would be sanctified by those
who were beloved and close to G-d. When G-d said 'I shall be sanctified by
those close to Me,' I thought it referred to me or you; now I see that they
– Nadav and Avihu – are greater then both of us.”
Rabbi Chaim ibn Attar (the Ohr Hachaim)
explains, that their death was “by Divine 'kiss' like that experienced by
the perfectly righteous. Only [the problem was that] the righteous die when
the Divine 'kiss' approaches them, while they died by their approaching it....
Although they sensed their own demise, this did not prevent them from drawing
near [to G-d] in attachment, delight, delectability, fellowship, love, kiss
and sweetness, to the point that their souls ceased from them.”
Nadav and Avihu’s death was a result of
their profound yearning for a Divine experience. Their error was that they
initiated it at their own discretion, and “selfishly” allowed the ecstasy
to consume them. Their sin was not they got close to the Divine, but that
they died doing so. In a sense, they wanted it too much, so much so that they
rushed into the fire and got burned in the process. Their bodies could no
longer contain their souls.
Thus the Torah says “when they came close
to G-d and (with such passion that) they died.” Why does the Torah add “and
they died” when it has already said, “after the death of the two sons of Aaron?”
Although it is healthy to divest yourself of material concerns, at the moment
when you stand poised at the ultimate ecstasy of the soul, you must turn again
to the work that the soul must do to transform the physical existence. Nadav
and Avihu achieved the ecstasy but not the return. This was their sin and
the reason for their death. They “came close to G-d and they died.” They allowed
their spiritual passion override their task to transform the world. They escaped
beyond the world and beyond life itself.
If their motivation was pure, driven by
the fiery passion of the soul, why then was it called a “strange fire?”
Because even if their intention was a good
one, it ultimately was driven by their personal desire, albeit a spiritual
desire, but still defined by their subjective drives. It may have begun for
Divine reasons, but they allowed it to become their own personal interest,
mounting to a point of intensity that it destroyed them, thus rendering the
“fire” into a “strange fire,” one which “He had not commanded.” They entered
on their own terms, at their own pace, at their own choosing – not on G-d’s
And this was the reason that they actually
ended up dying in the process. Because the same G-d that imbued us with passionate
souls also commanded us to use the passion not to expire in ecstasy and escape
the universe, no matter how appealing that choice may be, but to channel the
passion downward and transform the material world in which we live into a
Divine home. This is the purpose of the Temple: “build me a sanctuary (out of physical materials) and I will
rest among you.”
Thus, the ultimate test of Aaron’s sons’
intentions was their inability to integrate the experience: Had they patiently
and humbly entered on Divine terms, they would have been able to integrate
the experience into their lives and return to sanctify their world. Integration
would have confirmed that they were doing it not for themselves but for the
cause, for G-d. The fact that they allowed themselves to be consumed with
their own spiritual fire, demonstrated that it was their “own thing,” not
G-d’s, a strange fire not commanded.
Now, in this week’s Torah portion, “after
the death of Aaron’s sons,” Aaron is warned not to enter the Holy of Holies
like his sons did. Rather, “with this shall Aaron enter the holy place” –
in awe, obedience and self-abnegation. And in this way he would be able to
“make atonement for himself and for his house” on the holiest day of the year,
Yom Kippur, and to say a prayer for the sustenance of Israel – acts of concern for
In other words, the determining factor
whether the soul’s fire will be a constructive or destructive force is dependent
on the person’s motivation, how he begins his spiritual journey: If it’s a
self indulgent experience, driven primarily by personal desire and interest,
then you will not wish to turn back from your private ecstasy to the needs
of the world, and the fire will inevitably consume you. If, however, it is
driven by the selfless dedication and all-out surrender to the Divine, then
within this ecstasy, the desire ultimately to return and sanctify the world
will always be implicit, and the fire will lift you and your world to exalted
In the famous Talmudic story of the “four
that entered the garden” (a mystical experience) only Rabbi Akiva began the
journey with the proper attitude: He “entered in peace and (therefore) came
out in peace.” Because he entered with humility, in obedience to the Divine
will and seeking to unite the higher and lower worlds, that is why he came
out in peace. His intention of returning was implicit at the outset of his
path to religious ecstasy. While the other three – Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma and
Acher – all entered for other reasons, which determined how they emerged.
Ben Azzai entered seeking ecstasy, not return; therefore he “looked and died.”
Ben Zoma “looked and was stricken” (with madness). Acher “mutilated the shoots”
(i.e., became an apostate).
We are told the story of Aaron’s sons in
order to teach us an invaluable lesson about our own life experiences:
Each of us contains a powerful soul, with
fire in its belly. Each of us will, at one point or another, encounter spiritual
opportunities; passionate moments which will entice and light up our fires,
craving transcendence – the need to get beyond the daily grind. Transcendence
can take on many shapes: Spirituality, music, romance, travel, or sexuality,
to name a few.
How you act in these times – when the flames
of your soul are ablaze – will define the destiny of your life.
This explains why this week’s portion is
known by the name “after” or “after the death.” Why name a Torah portion with
an odd title – “after the death?” Why emphasize their tragic death?
The Torah is telling us that the “death”
of Aaron’s two sons – both the death itself, and “after the death” – teaches
us a vital lesson, actually a twofold lesson:
1) The search and need for transcendence,
the craving and yearning for a spiritual high is healthy and a necessary ingredient
in the human journey. All mans greatest achievements, his noblest acts, his
deepest loves – draw from the soul’s passionate fire.
2) Yet, as with all powerful things, great
care must be taken that the spiritual experience doesn’t “burn you up,” but
is integrated in your life.
The fire of our souls, like any fire, can
be the source of sustenance (healthy fire), or… an inferno (“strange fire”).
The challenge is great. The choice is ours.
Therein lies the twofold positive lesson
from the children of Aaron, both from their death and “after the death:”
Their death teaches us how not to enter
the Holy of Holies uninvited, not to enter at our initiative, at any time
we so choose, not to enter as a result of our personal desire; “after the
death” teaches us how to enter – “with this shall Aaron enter the holy place”
– with utmost humility, with sensitivity and above all, total immersing and
sublimating yourself into the experience.
Let us now return to the issue of drugs
and alcohol. The essential problem with inducing a (spiritual) high through
foreign substances is threefold: 1) It is driven by personal desire, and therefore
2) you have not earned your right of entry, and 3) it will not be integrated
into daily life. It will be an escape.
And this is precisely the reason why foreign
substances are addictive and take control of your life. As their name implies,
they and the altered states of consciousness they induce are foreign
substances – a “strange fire” – which don’t belong to you. For a brief, but
temporary moment they have the power to transport you to another place. But
you don’t belong there and you have not earned your way. Having not paid your
fare, the “strange fire” will come back to collect the debt: It will take
control of your life until it consumes you.
By contrast, when you earn your right –
through the arduous, selfless work of ego-nullification – then the emerging
spirituality carries you to great heights.
The formula goes like this: Superficial
experiences are just that – experiences that are felt with your sensory tools.
Real experiences – love, truth, health, happiness, sexuality, spirituality
– are the exact opposite: As soon as you sense them, as soon as become aware
of yourself, your needs and your search – you lose the ability to “own” the
Why? Because a real experience is not an
experience; it is state of being. Health for example is not a verb, but a
noun. It has no sensation. It just is. The same with true love: Love can manifest
itself in the senses and be expressed through the senses; but love itself
is not an action, but a condition, as is truth and all other inside-out realities.
Spirituality, the spiritual high, is a
permanent state of being that lies beneath the surface of existence. The “container”
can be artificially forced open with a “strange fire” (foreign substances),
but only temporarily. No single act can be done to access the spiritual truths
within; no magic can open up your soul. When you selflessly dedicate your
life to a higher cause, when you transcend your ego and strip away the forces
of material self-interest that impedes access to your soul within, then the
spiritual will emerge. The operative word is emerge. You don’t create it,
you don’t induce it, you don’t import it; you eliminate the weeds and the
When you try to take control, you lose
control. When you let go, you begin to gain control. When you try to contain
it, you lose it. When you let it free, it becomes yours.
The soul’s fire manifests in many ways.
Perhaps its deepest expression is in the fires of love and sexuality. Like
a fire, burning desire can be the root of our noblest acts, but also the source
of our most decadent behavior. Sexuality as selfish drive, divorced of intimacy,
brings us to the lowest depths; infused with sanctity, intimacy, commitment
and integration, it lifts us to the our greatest heights, infusing us with
the power to create – allowing us to enter the “Holy of Holies” close to G-d.
But this is paradoxically possible only
when our burning desires are not driven solely by human needs. When they are,
the same force is rendered into a destructive addiction.
All addictions are a result of a deep void
demanding attention. The desperate search for passion will look for an outlet.
If the spiritual thirst is not quenched in a healthy way, it will demand nourishment
at all costs – even if it means self destructive methods.
Addiction by its very nature means profound
dependency. Why would someone get addicted to anything? Why would we need
something that badly that we should become addicted to it? True, this may
be due to the actual substance itself. Some substances are chemically addictive;
they have the power to stimulate and ultimately alter certain chemicals in
the brain that creates a compulsive craving and uncontrollable dependence
on that substance. But that still doesn’t explain why a particular individual
allows him or herself to become addicted. What need is this substance
induced altered state serving; what void is it filling?
Addiction demonstrates two things at once:
A deep hunger, but the hunger is being sated with a force outside of yourself,
trapping you, killing you. The solution is not to eliminate the need (by becoming
a passive bore), but to relieve its pangs by feeding it with the surrender
to the Divine.
The ultimate relief of the soul’s profound
tension is bittul – humble submission to the world of spirit. The greater
the soul’s hunger and passion, the more its need for selflessness.
The story of Aaron’s sons teaches us that
the spiritual state fills the healthy human need for transcendence. But this
healthy need can be filled in unhealthy ways, served by unhealthy tools; the
desire can be pure, while the objective of the desire may not be, turning
the flame into a firetrap.
From Aaron’s sons we learn why the Torah
utterly rejects any induced state of altered consciousness. Besides for the
obvious issues of health, addiction and complying with the law – all fundamental
concerns in the Torah – the mere fact that one turns to a “strange fire” to
access spirituality (even if the experience was in some ways genuine) reflects
the abovementioned distortions: A yearning driven by self-interest, unearned,
escapist and non-integrative.
Even when using healthy and natural methods
and means to achieve spiritual highs, the key lies in your actual attitude
and drive: If transcendence becomes another extension of yourself, and is
driven by your need or desire to get high, then even if you use healthy methods,
ultimately transcendence will elude you. Only when you realize that you have
to let go – let go of your drives, needs and even hunger – then the spiritual
high will emerge.
And then, its will also be an integrative
experience instead of an escape. It will open you up to spiritual freedom,
instead of becoming an addictive monkey on your back.
Ecstasy that is driven by human politics
is politics not ecstasy; ethereal perhaps, but still man-made. Spirituality
on human terms not on spiritual terms.
The fire of the soul is our greatest asset.
The passion that burns in the unfettered spirit can overcome any challenge.
Yet, our success in harnessing these powerful flames is in direct proportion
to our humility and selflessness in appreciating them. And carefully protecting
and nurturing these flames.
The question we must always ask is twofold:
Are my fires burning?
What will I do with these fires – will I indulge
myself in them or will I allow them to lift me and the world
around me to greater places?
* * *
Question of the Week: Do mind altering
drugs help or impede the spiritual search?
a question for future weeks.