Shabbat Shalom! Last week, we celebrated Purim. Now, soon enough, it will be Pesah. Wine is a central symbol in Jewish tradition: the only beverage that gets its own blessing, it is used as a representation of creation, abundance, God’s blessing, and more. We use it for bringing in the Shabbat, saying a Kiddush over at least a symbolic sip of wine even if a full glass doesn’t accompany our Sabbath dinner (although, often it does that as well!), we use it in our Havdallah service to say goodbye to Shabbat, not only to take another symbolic sip but also to extinguish the Havdallah candle. And of course, for the two nearest holidays to this time of year, it plays a particularly central role. At Passover, our seder marks four distinctive times to refill our wine glasses, which depending on the size of your pour, could amount to close to a bottle per person over the course of the evening. At Purim, according to the Talmud, one should drink until one can no longer tell the difference between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordecai.” However, the Talmud also tells the following story: Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira were celebrating Purim together, and they got so drunk that Rabbah rose up and butchered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, sober and vexed, Rabbah prayed for a miracle, and Rabbi Zeira was brought back to life. The next year, Rabbah asked Rabbi Zeira if he would like to celebrate Purim together again. Rabbi Zeira said, “One cannot count on a miracle every time.” Party on with caution.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, God speaks directly to Aaron, something that doesn’t happen all that often, as most of the communication between God and the rest of the Jewish people, including Aaron and Miriam, goes through Moses. But in this parasha, God speaks to Aaron, saying, “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is the law for all time throughout the ages, for you must be able to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.” Rashi explains that these verses refer specifically to one who has become drunk through wine, though he permits the priests to drink watered down wine before performing their duties, assuming their thinking does not become impaired. He, along with several other commentators, also agree that no one should teach while intoxicated, for the laws of ritual and the mitzvot of the Torah are very holy and to make a mistake in teaching these matters could have terrible consequences for the whole community. The line in this section of Parashat Shemini which specifies, “that you may not die,” indicates that while teaching under the influence is generally discouraged for anyone, a priest who does so may face capital charges since his duties are of utmost importance and should be undertaken and taught with a sober and clear mind.
Jewish tradition’s relationship to wine could be confusing to one who is not very careful with their own limits. We are told to use it in all our rituals, and that it is one of the central ingredients to making holidays festive, but then we are told not to imbibe too much before performing those rituals or teaching others about the holiday. We are told to drink to excess on Purim, but then told this awful story about two rabbis who did and one ended up killing the other. There is sometimes a silence around the problem of alcohol abuse in Jewish communities, and the tradition offers much ambivalence when it comes to tackling the question of substance use in Jewish society. This is why my colleague from the Academy for Jewish Religion has founded Beit Yosef. Still in its beginning stages, Beit Yosef is modeled after Beit Teshuvah on the West Coast, and seeks to be the first East Coast addiction recovery program that comes from a specifically Jewish focus. Eventually, I think Beit Yosef plans on offering in-patient rehabilitation as Beit Teshuvah does, but as of right now there is no facility on the East Coast to offer that. Founder Rabbi Ellie Shemtov has her own personal reasons for establishing Beit Yosef and naming it as such, and you can find her story at www.thebeityosef.org, but what rings out to me is that it comes from a teaching from a 14th century rabbi, Yosef Caro, who responded to the Talmudic decree to drink to excess on Purim with a resounding no. In his first book of Jewish law, called Beit Yosef, he said, “It’s written in Orhat Hayim [a volume of an earlier book of Jewish law] ‘one is obligated to mellow himself with wine,’ but not to become inebriated. This is totally prohibited. There is no greater sin than this. It causes sexual immorality and the spilling of blood and other sins besides these.”
May we have merriment, abundance, and show appreciation for all of creation. May we also keep clear minds, behave honestly, and act in ways that show proper respect to our tasks. And may we always have balance in our lives. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.
Shabbat Shalom! Think about a time when you were daydreaming in class and then a teacher noticed and called on you. You suddenly snap to attention, but you actually have no idea what’s going on, so you just answer with whatever comes into your head first. Maybe it is complete nonsense and is entirely related to what you were daydreaming about instead of what the teacher was talking about. Maybe you really tried to remember what the last thing you heard was before you started daydreaming so that you could offer a real answer anyway, but what you say is so far off from where the class has gotten while you were daydreaming that it still completely gives you away. Maybe you don’t even try, and you just answer some smart aleck thing because you know you’re busted anyway and why not go for broke.
In this week’s Torah portion, Parashat Shemini, God speaks directly to Aaron, something that doesn’t happen all that often, as most of the communication between God and the rest of the Jewish people, including Aaron and Miriam, goes through Moses. But in this parasha, God speaks to Aaron, saying, “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die. This is the law for all time throughout the ages, for you must be able to distinguish between the sacred and the profane, and between the unclean and the clean, and you must teach the Israelites all the laws which the Lord has imparted to them through Moses.” The great medieval rabbi and Torah commentator, Rashi, offers some explanations about the wine and the drinking, and the other sages agree with him about how clear headed people should be when taking on their holy tasks. I hope I can assume none of you are drinking wine in school, but I think the lesson still carries over to other ways of clouding our minds. When you are in school, you are carrying out holy tasks of learning, of preparing yourself for life, and of teaching others your own special knowledge. We all have something to learn and something to teach, and if we are not fully present in mind as well as body, then we miss important opportunities to learn and to teach. Maybe this is why God spoke these words directly to Aaron about his special task as High Priest, even though God usually spoke to Moses: so that Aaron would know that he has to take his role seriously and to understand that he is every bit as important as Moses.
Of course, we can’t constantly be in teaching and learning mode. Sometimes, it is ok to let our minds go blank, or to do things that are just for us, our own ways of enjoying life without regard to what they teach us or how others are viewing us in that moment. The key to all of this is to know when to do which. May our lives be full of fun and appreciation for all of creation. May we keep open minds, behave honestly, and act in ways that show proper respect to our tasks. And may we always have balance in our lives. Amen and Shabbat Shalom.