Rabbi Yehoshua Weber

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We Jews don’t denigrate the physical.

Quite the reverse.

We celebrate the physical by infusing it with moderation, wisdom and spiritualty.

This is our approach to marriage, physical relationships and family.

That approach displays itself in so many dictums, including the following: “he who resides without a wife, resides without joy.”[1] “‘Hashem said, it is very good’[2] ….that is the impulse to procreate….”[3]

Contrast our approach to the one taken by the many communities that idealize celibacy by precluding their religious leaders from marrying.

Look, also, at Shabbos’ and Yom Tov’s joy and feasting - and at the fact that we only have one Torah-mandated day of fasting, Yom Kippur.[4]

Contrast this with those – like Muslims who fast for 40 consecutive days during Ramadan - that emphasize abstention.

Yes, we celebrate physical life.

This celebration may even include alcohol, a fact that confounds those who eschew alcohol for religious reasons.

Many mitzvos - kiddush, havdalah, Pesach’s 4 cups, our marriage ceremony - revolve around wine. In addition, we drink wine on Yom Tov because “there is no joy without wine, as it says ‘And wine will rejoice the heart of man.’[5][6]

These positivisms about wine are buttressed by our parsha’s discussions about the nazir. That nazir - someone who vows to abstain from wine[7]- brings a sin offering “for having sinned against the soul.”[8]

That “sin” - according to one opinion - is the fact that the nazir “pained himself [by depriving himself] from wine.”[9]

Not that such deprivation is all wrong. If the Torah creates vehicles for halachic abstention, then certain people – perhaps those given to overdrinking – should, indeed, abstain from wine.

The nazir, though, is still a sinner, because, necessary as his abstention may be, that abstention demeans Hashem’s gift of wine.

Others, though, see the nazir’s abstention through a very different prism. They see it as an ideal. They buttress this view from the following possuk: “If a man vows to be a nazir …from wine he should abstain….holy he will be.” When the Torah calls him holy, it is, essentially, idealizing that abstention.

Yes, a nazir brings a sin offering. That offering, though, was only brought when he ended his “holy” nazirus. It is, then, the ending of holiness that makes him a sinner and prompts that sin offering.

According to this viewpoint, the Torah wants us all to become nezirim. Why, then, doesn’t the Torah mandate such universal nazirus by totally banning alcohol? Only because such a ban – which wouldn’t accommodate people’s “evil impulses”[10] – was too demanding.

So, there are two viewpoints. Some see alcohol as being totally negative. Other see alcohol as something positive that, albeit, must be moderated by nazirus rules that protect those prone to overdrinking.

What emerges, then, is that even those who don’t advocate a total ban, expect – as seen in the nazir rules – some curbing of alcohol. That need to curb is buttressed by the many Torah incidents – like Noach’s degradation and Lot’s incestuous relationships – that highlight alcohol’s dangers.

All of this offers comment on our community’s current relationship with alcohol.

That relationship is different than it once was. Our community once prided itself on alcohol abuse rates that were far lower than those of the general population.[11]

Unfortunately, that is no longer the case

All the organizations that address substance abuse - Amudim, JACS and The Living Room – peg our substance abuse rates at an astonishing 11% of the community, a rate that parallels that of the general population.

We can wonder what changed our relationship with alcohol. Do affluences of funds and time cause culture-changing heavy drinking at kiddushim and shalom zachors? Have we imbibed surrounding culture’s acceptance of drunkenness?

The fact that: “among America's major religious groupings, Jews …are more likely than average to say they drink alcohol… those who identify with a non-Christian religion are below average… Protestants are slightly below average, while Catholics are slightly above average”[12] may also contribute to this change. If we are more likely to drink, then given the current culture, many of us may overdrink.

These cultural changes are causing endless suffering. Just one organization, Amudim, dealt with 32 frum abuse-related deaths, 8 or 9 in just one suburban community, in just a few months. These numbers reflect the mind-boggling fact that substance abuse and overdoses are the leading cause of death for Americans under 50.

Some of those deaths - like those from asphyxiating on alcohol-induced vomit, alcohol-poisoning and alcohol-induced accidents- are directly linked to alcohol.

Other deaths, like those from drug overdoses, are not directly but are indirectly linked to alcohol. How so? Because exposure to mind-altering alcohol can prompt people to seek similar mind-altering experiences in the drug netherworld.

And it’s not just about the immediate deaths. It’s also about the damage to shalom bayis, to chinuch, to people’s long-term health effects and to their avodas Hashem.

No, I am not suggesting that we all become nezirim.

Some of us can take the middle road and drink responsibly.

Only, though, if we drink with moderation, wisdom and spiritualty.

Rabbi Weber is founder of Ohr Tzvi Montebello-Monsey. Please visit his website, ohrtzvi.org, to sign up for his weekly email message or for information on his live or zoom shiurim.

[1] Midrash Aggadah, Bereishis 2:18

[2] Bereishis 1:31

[3] Bereishis Rabba (Vilna) 9:7

[4] All other fasts are of later origin and will be suspended, come Moshiach.

[5] Tehillim 105:15

[6] Pesachim 109a

[7] Bamidbar 6:1-21

[8] Bamidbar 6:11

[9] Taanis 11a

[10] Ikkarim 3:15

[11] How Jews Avoid Alcohol Problems, Barry Glasner & John, Bruce Berg, American Sociological Review, Volume 45, August 1980, which sites old statistics pegging the general incidence of alcoholism at 7% of the population, and the Jewish incidence at 1%.

[12] Religion and Drinking Alcohol in the U.S., Frank Newport, Gallup Polling, August 12, 2019



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