Perashat Shemini – Drink Wine
It has been said that you can always tell when you are in a Jewish neighborhood because of the striking absence of bars.
A while ago a very depressed man from Boston who is in his mid-seventies made his way to my home for Shabat dinner. When this man left he said that he had had the best Shabat of his life. He was not referring to the spiritual aura of my Shabat chicken. A few boys from the yeshivah had found in this man a potential victim for a prank. They got this very depressed man drunk. He was not totally smashed but was extremely happy.
Two days earlier I had given a class on the Pasuk from Mishle:
Give strong drinks to the one who feels destroyed and wine to a sour soul.
The very same group of young men had accused me of escapism when I told them that our rabbis of blessed memory said that this Pasuk teaches us that you should give wine to all people who feel depressed, especially mourners. The alcohol helps to alleviate some of the misery associated with losing a loved one.
My point was proven when the elderly Bostonian got drunk at my house. He had walked in with big depressed eyes and informed us all that he comes yearly to Israel to pray for his friend in the homes for the elderly, the yeshivah boys almost burst in laughter. He left in great spirits as another Pasuk says:
And wine makes a man’s heart happy.
Our Perasha discusses the prohibition for Cohanim to drink wine:
Do not drink wine or intoxicating beverages you or your sons with you when you come to the Ohel Moed and you will not die, a law for all generations.
This prohibition refers to even a relatively small amount of wine. A Midrash connects the Mitzvah for a mourner to partake in drinking alcohol and the prohibition of wine to Cohanim. Aharon had just lost his sons while he was serving in the Beit Hamikdash. He was then told that even though he is mourning the Temple service takes precedence. To serve in the Beit Hamikdash a Cohen needs to be completely coherent. This is so that he can tell the difference between holy and mundane and between pure and impure.
We see that Judaism has much to say about alcohol consumption. Much polarization is involved when anyone discusses alcohol.
One of the most important questions in our generation is about the use and abuse of alcoholic beverages. Alcohol has been blamed for very many deaths on our roads. Alcohol, especially red wine, has also been credited with significantly reducing the occurrence of heart disease. Between the extremes of alcohol’s medicinal use and its cause of carnage on the roads lies recreational and ritual use.
I know many people who substitute grape juice for wine when making Kiddush. Almost all of these people are afraid of using wine since “it is not good for the kids.” This is only a reaction to media hype and may backfire on the well meaning parents. Many believe that the previously very low incidence of alcoholism among Jews was attributed to the fact that Jews use wine on all occasions.
When given wine to drink every Friday night children associate this sip of wine positively. They come to associate alcohol with happiness and holiness. Having been brought up viewing alcohol in this light most do not admire those who while away their free time in bars. In using grape juice children are apt to have a gentile perspective on alcohol which will only cause problems.