Drink “Lechayim — To Life”! Parashat Naso

Posted: 06 Jun 2017 08:24 AM PDT

Can drinking wine help you at work? This was the question that blared from the headlines of this Monday’s Business Section of the Chicago Tribune.  Maybe some of you saw it. Upon reading the article one found that it was not about the benefits of drinking wine at work. The piece was about the lessons Bianca Rosker discovered when she quit her job as executive tech editor of the Huffington Post to become a professional wine taster. As a sommelier, Rosker had to develop and expertise in “blind tasting” – identifying a wine’s origin, grape and flavor notes without any previous knowledge of the wine that might cloud her judgement.  Through developing this skill, Rosker deduced a number of principles that could help people in their daily work. She learned that in order to accurately assess wine one had to quiet one’s mind and focus on the task at hand. Staying in the moment and concentrating on the qualities of the wine before you is critical to success as a sommelier. One also needs to trust one’s own judgement. In blind tasting you have nothing but your own sense of taste, smell and sight to assess a wine.  She also learned that one must not be swayed by hype. Extravagant publicity, celebrity endorsements, sophisticated marketing or aggressive promotion introduce bias into our assessments and/or decisions. What is most heavily marketed or popular is often not the best. In tasting wine, one also needs to cultivate a critical eye, to learn to discriminate between what is excellent and what is mediocre. This too, is an important skill to develop in other professions.

Wine, of course, is important in Jewish ritual life. We sanctify each Sabbath and Festival with wine, we solemnize marriages with wine, wine is present at a bris and at Havdalah, and let’s not forget the four cups of wine we drink at the seder! The majestic Psalm 104 mentions wine and bread as two things that G-d created for humankind’s benefit – “G-d made wine that gladdens the heart of humankind …. And bread that sustains the heart of humankind”

That makes it all the more strange that in this week’s Torah portion we find that abstaining from wine is one of the requirements in achieving a special state of holiness. A person who takes upon themselves this additional dedication to the Divine is called, in the Torah, a Nazarite. This is not to be confused, as it often is, with a Nazarene, a person from the town of Nazareth. Jesus was a Nazarene, not a Nazarite! The Nazarite is a Jew who takes a vow to let their hair grow, to avoid coming into contact with the dead, and to abstain from wine in an effort to come closer to G-d.  These are the outward signs of their consecration to G-d. Given the centrality of wine to the Jewish ritual, the rabbis ask why the Nazarite needs to abstain from wine.  One key to solving this mystery, say the rabbis, is to look at it in the context of the Torah as a whole. Just prior to the Nazarite section in the Torah, we have a section on the laws pertaining to a woman who is suspected of adultery by her jealous husband. Both adultery and jealousy represent serious character flaws. The medieval sage Rashi says that the laws of the Nazarite follow the laws of the adulterous wife to teach that, “One who sees the moral failure of a husband or wife should abstain from wine.”

How might we understand this latter statement?  Perhaps Rashi is saying that if you can so clearly see a character flaw in someone else, it is quite possible that you have the same character flaw yourself! “It takes one to know one,” as the saying goes. For those who are struggling to contain destructive inner forces – like their anger, their jealousy, their greed or their desire, for example — the lowering of inhibitions can be disastrous. Therefore, one should give up wine, for wine is the middleman between such a person’s latent moral shortcomings and their sinful expression acted out in the world.

The Baal Shem Tov teaches that it is not just an “accident” that one observes a character flaw like this in another. There are some people who are consciously looking for the shortcomings in others. These are folks that go about examining others to discern their moral blemishes, their weaknesses and their failings. They might even take pleasure in the downfall of others. These people, according to Chassidic thought, ought to abstain from wine, for the effects of wine will only magnify their tendencies to see others in the worst possible light.

For most people, wine, in moderation, is generally a good thing – it lowers inhibitions a bit in social situations, relaxes us and can enhance conversation. Enjoying wine, in itself, can be a pleasurable experience.  That is why one rabbi of the Talmud said that in their effort to dedicate themselves to G-d, the Nazerite, in fact, becomes a sinner! According to this rabbi, it wasn’t that G-d gave us wine so that we can learn good work habits. G-d created wine solely for our enjoyment! G-d wants His creatures to enjoy this world fully. To abstain from a pleasure that is permitted in this world – the taste, the smell, the sight of a fine wine – is to transgress against our Creator who created this “fruit of the vine” for our delight.

And to that, I think we can all drink, “LeChaim”.

Shabbat Shalom