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Drinking and Striving

Rabbi Yehuda Septimus

I still remember receiving the call from my office in the Gruss Talmudic Law section of the NYU Law School Library.  I was doing a yearlong post-doctoral fellowship, and I had recently delivered an apparently well publicized lecture about Tikkun Chatzot and, among other things, the correlation between its rise in Tzefat and the spread of coffee in the Ottoman Empire.  I believe I had given the lecture a snazzy title like "Mysticism, caffeination, and Jewishly altered states of consciousness."   The voice on the other line was a reporter asking whether I'd share my expert opinion regarding Judaism's attitude toward medical marijuana. 

As I paused to check my ever-cluttered mental filing cabinet for the file on halacha and medical marijuana - frustrated at my inability to locate the file - I was reminded of my new but dear job as Rabbi at the Young Israel of North Woodmere.  I thought about what impact it might have on my young career and new relationship with my shul were I to become famous to the world as "the pot rabbi."   I declined the interview… and opted instead for "the hugging rabbi." 
This past Shabbat I spoke about a different type of prescription for an altered state of consciousness, one particularly popular at this time of year.  The gemara in Megillah, "chayav inish levesumei be-phuraia ad de-lo yada bein arur haman le-baruch mordechai," is usually translated, "an adult is obligated to get drunk on Purim to the point they cannot distinguish between 'cursed is Haman' and 'blessed is Mordechai.'"

Rabbis greater than I have argued cogently that there is no obligation to get drunk on Purim.  (For summaries of some of the sources, see here and here).  Especially notable is the argument of the Baal HaMaor.  He notes the story of Rabbah and Rav Zeira getting drunk together and requiring a miracle to reverse the effects of an ill-advised sword fight undertaken during their drunken state.  What else, says the Baal HaMaor, could this story be doing in the Gemara right after mention of an obligation to get drunk if it is not to reject the opinion in the Gemara that one is to get drunk on Purim?

Proving that we need not get drunk on Purim is not my goal.  My goal is less ambitious.  My goal is first to note that our Mesorah clearly and unambiguously responds with great compassion and understanding for what a good drink can do.   The fact that we use alcohol and sanctify time and action through it - on Shabbos and on Yom Tov, at weddings and brises, and potentially every time we say Birkat Hamazon - of course highlights the extent to which alcohol has the potential to produce holiness.  This despite the fact the Torah is unmistakably passionate about the importance of safeguarding our health and our lives.

Nevertheless, our tradition understands that Jews throughout the ages have been able to get close to God and Godliness and to get close to other people - to create community and connection - through alcohol.   Of course there is a big difference between sanctification through alcohol and getting drunk.   But, when it comes Purim the simple understanding of the mitzvah is that it is an obligation to get drunk…  Once a year.  Still we must ask: Why even once a year?  What's the point?  

I believe there is no denying the Torah shows real compassion for an occasional and genuine need to escape the pain of this world.   Ultimately that IS what happens on Purim.   Even at the end of the story, our People is saved, but we are still very much in exile.  In the language of the Gemara, "akatei avdei achashverosh anan"; "we are still the subjects of Achashverosh."   Esther is practically a prisoner in the king's palace.  The Beit HaMikdash remains in shambles.   How far have we really come?   And yet we celebrate.  And Chazal tell us that if we lose ourselves in the fun of Purim it's not so bad…  so long as we remember that we are still human beings and still Jews.  According to Chazal, what got us into the pre-Purim mess in the first place was our inappropriate participation in the Achashverosh's drinking party.  

And this is the great fear.  That we can lose ourselves to a point that we can quite quickly lose our humanity.  And the stronger our need to escape reality to tolerate the otherwise intolerable challenges of life the greater that danger is.  The danger was too great for Noach, who found himself drunk and naked after the trauma of the flood.  And it was too great for the Jews of Persia as well.* 

Which is why it is fascinating that the Torah ultimately does not preach abstinence for all.  For a recovering alcoholic yes.  For a minor yes.  But not for all.  Because using a gift God has given us to lighten the load of the people around us is part of the community of Godliness Hashem has in mind for us to build.   And even escaping this world is not a response foreign to Judaism - especially if we are fleeing from the suffering of this world... into the embrace of the Almighty.

As the famous piyyut often attributed to the Zohar formulates it:

כד יתבין ישראל ועסקין בשמחת התורה
קודשא בריך הוא אומר לפמליא דיליה
חזו חזו בני חביבי
דמשתכחין מצערא דילהון ועסקין בחדוותא דילי

When the Jewish people immerse themselves in the joy of studying Torah
The Holy One Blessed is He says to all His heavenly hosts:
Look, look at my beloved children
As they forget their own sufferings and immerse themselves in my loving Torah.

What are we speaking about here if not escape from pain into the embrace of the Almighty?  Transcending difficulty through Torah, tefillah, chesed, and the building of community is one of the most powerful things we can achieve in life.  Of course, that's quite different from escape into frivolity.

So why am I saying that we need to have compassion for people's need to escape a bit - even if it is not always the highest-level escape into the embrace of the Almighty?  I say it first because Purim teaches us that it is true.  And I say it because the solution to most problems is compassion - even a problem like the number of young people who have lost their lives to alcohol and drug use.  Finally, I say it because alcohol in our community is an issue about which I personally am deeply conflicted.   Because alcohol in moderation can be a fun escape or even, at best, quite holy.   And yet, the moderation is so easily lost.  Our communities have lost way too many good people to this terrible disease of escape through alcohol and other chemicals.

The question is CAN we be responsible enough as a community to do embrace alcohol in the right way…  In a way that models moderation and appropriateness for our children?   In a way that allows us not to become so lost in our inebriation that we lose out on crucial time with our families on Shabbat, as challenging as that time can sometimes be?  In a way that allows us to maintain boundaries and speak and act respectfully to our spouses and to others?   In a way that we have the courage to be true friends to that friend who struggles with moderation and tell him when he's had enough to drink, or tell him when he needs to get help?   In a way that neither pressures those who don't drink nor excludes them?

These are real questions.   What I do know is that in a world filled with so much danger so readily accessible - whether drugs or alcohol in excess or other risk taking - I'm not sure abstinence will carry the day as a solution.   A model of enjoyment in moderation, of "la-kol zman va-et," that everything has it's time and place, seems more poised for success.  That said, the impulse to escape this word is an impulse to which we must pay close attention in our communities and - especially - in our youth.  Because the impulse will not go away by our ignoring it.  And the line between fun-filled connection and chemical escape can become blurry, with the transition from one to the other striking swiftly and scarily.  The number of losses we have experienced to Heroin overdoses in the past few years is UNTHINKABLE. (If you have teens, please read this important message before Purim.)

In the context of the Gemara, I do believe the requirement "chayav inish livisumei" does mean "a person should get drunk."  But Purim is the exception that proves the rule.  Purim is once a year.   During the rest of the year and in general, there is a secondary meaning to "livisumei…"   the word comes from the root בשמים, sweet fragrance.  And this is where the potential sanctity of alcohol enters the picture.  What makes alcohol special?  Partially that we take a God given gift of nature - grapes - and we grow, harvest, and ferment them in the perfect way to bring out the subtleties of taste and texture that challenge us to become connoisseurs, to appreciate the fullness of this world with all our senses.  The moment we have drunk too much we can no longer appreciate the niceties of a fine wine or a top shelf scotch.  When we overconsume alcohol - or use drugs - we dowse our senses so that we stop sensing anything at all.  That's not the goal.  

We should be able to taste and smell and feel the sweet fragrances that give life depth and texture and color.  We should be connoisseurs of the best of Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim, and yes - if we are so inclined - an occasional single malt.  That is drinking and striving.  Purim is unique; it is one time a year that we might dull all of our senses in the hope that our essential striving for the Divine will emerge even more fully and unadulterated.  But most of the time, our goal is not dull our other senses but to deepen those senses and sensitivities to the niceties of the sacred world in which we live.  That deepening of sense and sensitivity is our daily vehicle toward a life of kedushah.

*Although an alternative interpretation of Chazal's critique of the Jews who participated in the feast of Achashverosh is that the fault laid in their participating not for their enjoyment but rather in their participation to curry the favor of the king.  Getting drunk on Purim is then a way of saying that it is better to lose our inhibition within a context of kedushah, where by shedding our inhibitions our true spiritual selves emerges than it is to play the false part of participation in a society to whose values we do not subscribe, even if in so doing we retain complete control of our senses.   

Fri, July 12 2024 6 Tammuz 5784