Parashat Shemini continues the saga of the Torat Kohanim, the laws of the Mishkan, its service, and its priests, the Kohanim. Among these laws is the prohibition for a Kohein to enter the Mishkan while intoxicated, as the Pasuk states, “Yayin VeSheichar Al Teisht…BeVoachem El Ohel Moeid,” “And you shall not drink wine or liquor…when you enter the Tent of Meeting” (VaYikra 10:9). The Torah even states that if a person is drunk, he cannot properly distinguish between the sanctified and the mundane. Of course, alcohol can incapacitate a Kohein in more ways than this. For instance, if by some stroke of luck a drunken Kohein manages to properly check an animal and prepare it for slaughtering, when he slaughters the animal, he can easily cut himself or improperly slaughter the animal, making it unfit for sacrifice.
This is just one of many reasons that one may not serve Hashem while drunk. Rambam writes (Hilchot Tefilah UNesiat Kapayim 4:17), “Shikor…Tefilato Toeivah.” Rambam believes that if a person prays while drunk, his prayer is an abomination to Hashem. Using such a strong word, Rambam must believe that worshipping Hashem while drunk is beyond the level of disgust that can be measured by any other term.
Not only does intoxication forbid a person from serving Hashem, but it even degrades the person himself. Rashi comments on the Pasuk in BeReishit, “VaYipach BeApav Nishmat Chayim VaYehi Adam LeNefesh Chayah,” and states that when Hashem blows the “living soul” into the nostrils of man, God gives man two unique abilities: reasoning and speech (2:7 s.v. Nefesh Chayah). These two exceptional and unique abilities not only set mankind apart from the rest of the animal kingdom but they also make it superior. However, when man is intoxicated, he loses control of these abilities, and as such he is reduced to the level of animals. Of course the Kohanim, who serve Hashem and act as Bnei Yisrael’s messengers, must be on a level higher than the people they represent. If they are intoxicated, they degrade themselves and become unfit to serve God and act as the messengers of Bnei Yisrael.
The prohibition for Kohanim to serve while intoxicated sheds light not only on the Torah’s perspective on drinking but also on its perspective on how to present oneself. When intoxicated, Kohanim degrade themselves and take away from their inherent Kedushah, and thus they may not serve. We, like the Kohanim, must be careful to treat not only others but also ourselves with respect and to present ourselves as people deserving of respect.