TO DRINK OR NOT TO DRINK
While the "tastes great" vs. "less filling" debate rages on in bar rooms across America, we are confronted with a somewhat similar dilemma in Judaism concerning another intoxicating beverage: Wine.
While the "tastes great" vs. "less filling" debate rages on in bar rooms across America, we are confronted with a somewhat similar dilemma in Judaism concerning another intoxicating beverage: Wine. Although our sages have offered numerous observations about wine and its effects, many of their comments appear contradictory, and we are left with no clear consensus on the matter. On the one hand, the Talmud (Tractate Berachot 40a) states unequivocally, "Nothing brings lamentation to the human race like wine." Additionally, we find that Noah is criticized for choosing to plant a vineyard as his first undertaking following the flood, an action he is subsequently punished for via the incident with his son Ham. (Please see the article entitled "I heard it through the grapevine" in Torah from Dixie volume 1; issue 45 for further discussion.) However, on the other hand, we find statements from the sages that clearly extol the virtues of wine, including the Talmud (Tractate Pesachim 109a) which declares that one cannot experience true happiness on the festivals without wine. Even more startling is the injunction on the holiday of Purim to intoxicate ourselves with wine in order to achieve a level of holiness and closeness with Hashem matched only by Yom Kippur.
As if to add to the confusion, in this week's Torah portion we find seemingly paradoxical remarks by our sages concerning the nature of wine only a few verses apart! Interestingly, the section describing the Nazir, one who voluntarily abstains from drinking wine and taking haircuts, follows directly on the heels of the section about the Sotah, the unfaithful wife who meets a horrible death upon drinking sacred bitter waters. As nothing is random in the Torah, the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 2a) explains this juxtaposition with the advice that one who has witnessed the horrifying death of the Sotah woman should take a lesson from her crime and abstain from wine, since wine can bring a person toward the types of inappropriate behavior that she exhibited. Certainly this comment indicates a negative sentiment towards the evils of wine. However, that is only half of the story. Later in the Nazir narrative, as the Nazir concludes his period of abstention, he is instructed by the Torah to bring an offering of atonement. The Talmud (Tractate Nedarim 10a) in seeking to understand what sin this man has committed that requires atonement, reasons that since he has separated himself from the pleasures of wine for 30 days, he is therefore categorized as a sinner. Unbelievable! Within a span of several verses, the sages have seemingly reversed their position entirely! How are we to interpret these mixed messages sent to us by our sages?
The truth is that we can easily resolve this paradox if we keep in mind a very important principle espoused in Judaism. Almost none of the physical pleasures in our world can be classified as inherently virtuous or evil. The physical world was placed here by Hashem for us to use as we wish. Judaism does not advocate asceticism; with the right intentions and motivations, the physical world can serve as a spiritual springboard, elevating us to new heights of holiness.
Conversely, used in the wrong way, the physical delights can propel us downward into the depths of spiritual depravity. This duality is especially true with wine, one of the most potent and powerful pleasures of the physical world. Used in the correct context, wine can raise us to a spiritual level on par with that of Yom Kippur when we are compared to angels. However, wine also contains the power to lead us to complete and utter spiritual destruction. Thus, in reality, there is no contradiction in the Nazir section. On the one hand, the Torah wished to show the potential pitfalls of the physical world, and in particular with wine, and thus placed the Nazir immediately following the description of the Sotah. However, on the flip side, the Torah reminds us of the incredible potential of the physical world to enhance our spirituality. With the representation of the Nazir, the Torah has masterfully enlightened us about the true nature of the physical world we live in, a powerful lesson to keep in mind in every move we make.
Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan and graduate of Yeshiva Atlanta, is enrolled in a joint program with Ner Israel Rabbinical College and the University of Maryland, both in Baltimore.
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