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WHY IS WINE UNIQUE IN THE JEWISH TRADITION?

Friday, 17 April, 2015 - 11:38 am

There's this little guy sitting inside a bar, just looking at his drink. He stays like that for half-an-hour. Then, this big trouble-making truck driver steps next to him, takes the drink from the guy, and just drinks it all down.

The poor man starts crying. The truck driver says: "Come on man, I was just joking. Here, I'll buy you another drink. I just can't see a man crying." "No, it's not that. Today is the worst day of my life. First, I overslept and was late to an important meeting. My boss, outrageous, fired me. When I left the building to my car, I found out it was stolen. The police said they could do nothing. I got a cab to return home, and after I paid the cab driver and the cab had gone, I found that I had left my whole wallet in the cab. I got home only to find my wife in bed with the gardener. I left home and came to this bar. And when I was thinking about putting an end to my life, you show up and drink my poison...."

This week’s Torah portion contains its own mysterious tragedy. Aaron’s two sons die in the Tabernacle and their death seems to be entirely senseless: What was their crime? What had they done to deserve such swift and brutal consequences? Surely, as sons of Aaron the High Priest, they were holy, righteous people! How could they have done such a crime in the first place? Was it an accident? What did they mean to do?

According to the Midrash, the men had entered the Tabernacle drunk, but where does this interpretation come from? In the words of the Torah, the crime Nadav and Avihu were guilty of was “bringing foreign fire” to the Tabernacle. What does their alleged pre-service drink have to do with that?

The key clue is the significance of wine. Wine has earned a unique position in Jewish life and tradition. It is the king of drinks, the only beverage to have earned itself its very own-bracha—the blessing of “borei pri hagafen.” And, according to Jewish law, when you make a blessing over wine, you are exempt of making any blessing over any other beverage, for they are all subservient to the wine.

What is more, wine escorts us throughout our lifecycles. When we are hatched and when we are matched—the wine is present: During the Brit Milah and during the wedding ceremony. It was poured regularly on the Altar in the Temple, and continues to be used today for grace after meals, for the Passover Seder and of course for Kiddush on Shabbat and all of the Jewish holidays.

It is concerning this latter function of wine—Kiddush wine—that a fascinating debate rose up between two ancient Jewish schools of thought. At first glance, the debate seems inconsequential; it is a dispute about a small detail in the weeklyKiddush ritual. Upon deeper reflection, this debate is suggestive of two divergent perspectives on Jewish life and the religious experience.

As long as it stood, the Tabernacle was the absolute pinnacle of the Jewish experience. It was a place that offered the purest, most unadulterated encounter with G-d, the ultimate divine experience. It was a space of intimacy between man and G-d. Imagine a groom showing up to his own wedding inebriated. When his bride asks him why he smells of alcohol, he says: I needed to make sure I am in a happy mood during our wedding."What a disgrace!" would be her response."Are you kidding me? You need the Blue Label to get you into a happy mood?The factthat you are marrying metonight doesn't cut it?"

When the Tabernacle was dedicated it was like the wedding day between G-d and His people. The Divine presence came to dwell amongst them. To use a foreign substance to generate inspiration was a desecration and violation in the profoundest of ways. So when the Torah described their sin as “they brought before the Lord foreign fire, which He had not commanded them,” it is not a contradiction to the inebriation story. It is all the same point. The sons of Aaron were looking for a “fire.” They craved inspiration, happiness, and passion. But the problem was it was a “foreign fire,” fire generated from foreign substances. In the Sanctuary, on the day of the dedication, this was a travesty. In the Tabernacle, all there is, is the Jew and his Creator. There is no need for anything else, and any external aid is “foreign”; it is an affront to the raw, intense, unfiltered Divinity of the place.

Outside of the Tabernacle, if you want to bring wine into Judaism? Great. But even then make sure that it is not the wine which constitutes the basis of the appeal. We all need some help at times in our spiritual pursuits, and we need the Jewish experience to be made accessible and user-friendly. But never confuse packaging with substance.

There are millions of people who are unable to properly interact socially without the benefit of alcohol, unable to enjoy themselves without some party drug, or unable to have a spiritual experience without psychedelic substances. This is a tragedy. It is a tragic underestimation of the rich potential of human experience. It undermines our intelligence, dignity and maturity. Our youth are capable of much more.

What is more, there are times when we are all capable of an independent, authentic relationship with Judaism and with G-d, without the need of external motivations. We don’t need patronizing perks or shiny tricks and trinkets. The neshama is a fiery piece of G-d, screaming for purpose, for meaning, for spirituality, for transcendence, and for G-d. It doesn’t need any incentives! That’s what it is! We must realize when we are violating the sanctity of a moment, when we need the external substance to motivate us. It is possibleto inspire people without the wine, without selling Judaism or ourselves short. The soul is more powerful than you think.

In 1960, a group of Jewish college students came to see the Rebbe. The students had prepared questions which they posed to the Rebbe in the course of the audience.

Toward the end of the meeting, after the Rebbe had answered their queries on various issues, one student asked:

“I have heard it said that the Rebbe has the power to work miracles. Is this true? Do you perform supernatural feats?”

The Rebbe replied: “The ability to work miracles is not confined to a select group of individuals, but is within reach of each and every one of us. We each possess a soul that is a spark of Gdliness. Therefore, we each have the power to transcend the limitations imposed upon us by our physical natures, no matter how formidable they may seem.

“To demonstrate this to you,” said the Rebbe, “I will now perform a miracle.”

Smiling at the startled young faces around his desk, the Rebbe continued: “Each and every individual in this room will now resolve to improve himself in one specific area. You will each choose an improvement that you recognize as necessary, but until now have perceived as being beyond your power to achieve. Nevertheless, you will succeed, proving to yourselves that the soul indeed has the power to overcome the natural ‘reality'...."

 

Shabbat Shalom,


Rabbi Yoseph Geisinsky

 

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