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Beit Midrash Torah Portion and Tanach Naso

The Power of Wine

The wine – the most important liquid drink in Jewish tradition and life. Is it a drink of holiness and consecration or is it the drink that leads to debauchery and destruction, both physical and spiritual?
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This week’s parsha deals with the positive and negative sides of wine – the most important liquid drink in Jewish tradition and life. Wine is one of the main libations mentioned in the Torah regarding the sacrificial offerings in the Temple service. Wine is the drink of Kiddush on Shabat, it is the four cups of the Pesach Seder, it is present at every circumcision ceremony, the redemption of the first born son and at wedding ceremonies. In short, wine is the most consecrated drink in Jewish law, tradition and life. On the other hand in this week’s parsha we find wine as a negative force. It plays a destructive role in the tragedy of the unfaithful wife in the sotah parsha. It is one of the things that a nazir must abstain from during his attempt to achieve greater sanctity and purity of body and soul. We find in the Torah that it was the contributing factor in the downfall of Noach and his family after the great flood. In Mishlei, King Solomon devotes many words to warn of the dangers and downside of drinking wine. It appears to be a villainous player in the scheme of Jewish life. So how are we to view this oldest of all human drinks, the fruit of the grape vine? Is it a drink of holiness and consecration or is it the drink that leads to debauchery and destruction, both physical and spiritual? This is essentially a general question that governs all of Jewish life in very many areas of human behavior. What is good for us and what is not good – that is the question.

I believe that the answer to the above questions and seemingly inconsistent positions lies in the necessity for implementing the Torah’s main rule in living life – a sense of balance and proportion. Wine, when joined to an act of consecration and holy mitzvah – Shabat Kiddush, a circumcision, a wedding, etc. – is a fitting and holy drink. When disassociated from such positive events, when it becomes purely "recreational" drinking, it becomes a potentially dangerous potion. In Judaism, all events in life, no matter how seemingly trivial they may first appear to be must have some positive purpose associated with them. Without that sense of positive purpose, these actions, no matter how innocuous they may appear to be at their onset, can lead to sin and moral failings. Thus the Torah presents to us this double edged sword of wine as an example of this rule of life and living. Circumstances, intent, the influence upon others of one’s behavior, are all factors that figure into the probity of one’s actions and behavior. Nothing in life occurs in a vacuum. Wine, like many other things in this world, is essentially a neutral item. What one does with it determines its status, whether it is a drink of holiness and consecration or one that can lead to debauchery and personal tragedy. This is an important lesson as to how to treat all matters and items that appear in our lives.
Rabbi Dov Berl Wein
The rabbi of the "HANASI" congregation in Yerushalim, head of the Destiny foundation, former head of the OU, Rosh Yeshiva of 'sharai Tora" and rabbi of the "Beit Tora" congregation, Monsey, New York.
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