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Drugs – Strange Fire

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The Ecstasy of Politics

Dear Rabbi,

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 help.

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]

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Dear David,

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)

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 negative light?

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 terms.

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 the world.

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 heights.

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 man’s 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 experience.

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 flower emerges.

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?

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Lee Shinefield

Rabbi, Thank you for this article. It has stimulated some thoughts that Id like to share. Its very interesting that in the Stone edition Chumash (Shemini, Chapter 10, Verse 8) Hashem spoke to Aaron, saying: Do not drink intoxicating wine, you and your sons with you, when you come to the Tent of Meeting, that you not die…What I interpret form this is that a little pleasure in life is acceptable in private. However, do not use artificial substances to produce a high, and then presume to be in touch with the divine. I interpret that a self-induced high is… Read more »

Tanya

B.H.LIFE AFTER DEATH I have always kept the mitzvot, the commandments, out of fear, not out of love for G-d. I feared disappointing those people around me, whom I loved & cared for. I sought approval & affirmation. During my active addiction, especially, I feared getting caught – I was paranoid & nervous. I was afraid of G-d. I disconnected myself from everyone & anyone for fear of their disapproval G-d included. I was spiritually dead. I was sentenced to rehabilitation.My journey to freedom began. I could not feel for a long time. I felt lost, afraid, alone & scared.… Read more »

Danny

Dear Simon I dont know how much experience you have had with drugs (Ill bet you have taken some in the past week – eg coffee, tea, sugar, alchohol, tabacco, prescribed /legal drugs) Whilst there may be something in what you say, and clearly the guy writing to you hs suffered from addiction to them, I have found them, in particular marijuana, to be very beneficial to me and I am constantly amazed when people (including teachers like yourselves) write/speak as if they know what is good/bad for everyone. How could you possibly know even if you do have a… Read more »

Rabbi Jacobson, Thank you for a very comprehensive response; but I have a practical question. What about alcohol? Its use is tolerated, advocated and sometimes required. Kiddush, Purim, Simchas Torah, farbregen, etc. I heard that the Rebbe said that until you are 40, one is limited to four drinks. So lets say that applies to every holiday or event. Why is that acceptable and other substance use in moderation is not? If the answer is that alcohol is fine in moderation with the spiritual purpose of the holiday or event, then why not something else? Illegality is an issue, but… Read more »

Rabbi, so many words when in reality where is the math. Where is the time fields, where is physics, where is cause and effect in that which we cannot see, where does random and chaos not exist, where is the blueprint of the dna and how historically and that is not 3000 years but millions of years in the fission and fusion, selfish and selfless, where do the boundaries here fit into the selfish and selfless starting from the physical boundary up. Why is mans nature repetitive despite all the words, what do other physical territories on the earth with… Read more »

Leon

Hi Simon, I really enjoyed this Torah of yours! In spite of the Times propaganda, it turns out that a poll taken a few years ago and reported in either Science or Physics Today (I think the former) reported that 40% of the scientist respondents believed in God. Among my personal scientist acquaintances, I can cite Professor Barry Simon, the IBM Professor of Mathematics and Physics at Cal Tech, who is devoutly observant (he used to wrote a column for the OU magazine, Action), and a friend, who goes to my Shabbos morning shiur that Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard gives and… Read more »

John W McGinley

As someone who works in a drug and alcohol rehab — and, more
importantly, as someone who indulged in strange fire for many years in
an ego-cenrtric manner — your words, your article, was perfect.
Addicts ar people who Jewish or non-Jewish, are on a spiritual quest:
and precisely in the wrong way as your aritcle makes so very clear.
By the way, I was very much helped by JACS. Keep up the good work.

Noah

Hello,While overall Rabbi Jacobson gave a beautiful answer with a lot of insight into the depths of the human soul and the causes behind drug abuse and addiction, there is one thing that seems have been mis-portrayed.Drinking in Judaism is completely acceptable. Theres a passage somewhere about how wine lightens the heart and helps one rejoice in G-ds glory and its a Mitzvah to get drunk on Purim. More often than not, there is drinking at a Friday night oneg. All of this is done within certain contexts and confines, and certainly abuse is not acceptable. Im confused about is… Read more »

David Lifschutz

The human brain is designed to enable one to achieve spiritual highs through natural means. Whatever external substance one can think of to attain a high has inherent risks involved. Alcohol in excess ravages the body and the brain, the very instrument one is attempting to attune height. Heroin puts its users in a stupor; Cocaine and amphetamines (which work similarly) cause paranoia and psychotic symptoms. Psychedelics can take one to strange/psychotic realms from which return may not ever occur. Attaining highs by natural means (yearning, prayer, tzedakah, mitzvot) does not expose one to the risks,and as Rabbi Jacobson pointed… Read more »

Rabbi Craig Wyckoff

Rabbi while your response was enlightening I felt it was a little esoteric. You might simply have quoted Genesis 9:20 Noah debased himself by drinking the wine and becoming drunk! That pretty much says it all and answers Davids question –If we use drugs or alchohal to alter our perception then we debase ourselves in Gds eyes. Than you and Shabbot shalom. Rabbi Craig

Fred

If mind altering drugs impeded the spiritual search, why would we make kiddush over wine? Of course we clearly do not make kiddush over cocaine or LSD. Did not the Rambam say we should be moderate?

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