“Wine cheers the hearts of men, oil makes the face shine and bread sustains
Alcohol, it says in Judges 9:13, “brings joy to God and man,” having both sacramental and recreational uses. The verse above in Psalms makes a similar point. Contrast this to the wisdom in Proverbs: “Give strong drink to him who is ready to perish and wine to the embittered. Let him drink and forget his poverty and remember his misery no more” (31:6-7). Drinking does not only heighten experience, it can obliterate memory. So according to Jewish tradition, is drinking good for us or bad for us? It depends…
One midrash travels us through the trajectory of drinking and how its impact depends on its quantity. Legend has it that when Noah was about to plant his vineyard after the flood, Satan came along as a gardener and buried the carcasses of a sheep, a lion, a pig and a monkey in the ground of Noah’s vineyard to teach Noah a lesson about drinking. When a person drinks a little, he becomes sheepish: timid and reserved. When he drinks more, he can have the ferocity of a lion. Too much causes him the embarrassment of piggish behavior and even more will turn him into a monkey (Midrash Tanhuma, Noah 14).
I thought of this midrash when I read Rabbi Abraham Twerski’s latest book, The Rabbi and the Nuns. Scion of a Hasidic dynasty, Rabbi Dr. Abraham Twerski has spent the better part of his life working not as a rabbi but as a psychiatrist treating addiction. For twenty years, he ran the psychiatry department at St. Francis hospital and developed a special relationship with its nuns and the priests in the Pittsburgh Diocese. “Why do nuns and priests become addicted to alcohol or other chemicals? Because they are human beings.”
Rabbi Twerski developed a deep regard for those he worked with and tried to understand the strains of loneliness, celibacy, and rigidity that may have contributed to addiction in this community. “Strange, no one asks why do nuns and priests become diabetic or develop asthma. This is because these conditions are diseases that can affect anyone. Alcoholism and drug addiction, however, are not thought of as diseases but as moral failures, and, therefore, devoutly religious people are expected not to have these conditions.”
He once treated a 34-year old priest who almost died of alcoholism and was given the last rites but finally stabilized. Rabbi Twerski administered Antabuse, a drug that makes even a drop of alcohol taste repulsive. The priest was not sure how he could conduct mass without taking a sip of wine, but Rabbi Twerski was not budging and suggested grape juice. The priest said it was not allowed. Then Rabbi Twerski pulled a Talmudic maneuver and called a local bishop who had been promoted to a cardinal and was at the Vatican. He asked for a special dispensation to save this young priest’s life. The cardinal took the request all the way up to the Pope, who quickly issued a dispensation permitting any alcoholic priest in recovery to use grape juice. This may be the first time a Hasidic rabbi saved a priest by going to the Pope.
This is sensitive work because sacramental use can turn into abuse. “Denial of the problem is common to all alcoholics and addicts,” Rabbi Twerski reminds us but, “The denial is even greater among people who feel that their reputation is at stake.” Priests and nuns who are alcoholics are “desperate to keep it a secret” – and some do, even from themselves.
It is an important reminder as we welcome in the Hebrew month of Adar II and approach Purim, a festival of joy where we feast and drink. Many “very religious” people get stone drunk under the guise of observance and use the holiday as an excuse to let it all go. If there is anything we learn from the story of Purim, it is a lesson straight out of the Alcoholic Anonymous playbook (and Peter 5:7): “Let go and let God.” Letting go and letting God does not mean that we are powerless but that we are capable of letting go of excess baggage and trusting that Higher Powers are at play in determining our destiny. We step into the risk that eventually redeems us because we believe we are not alone. Wine is supposed to heighten this sense of intimacy and faith in God while not blurring our capacity to feel anything at all.
As we enter Adar II, we need to enhance our happiness and our trust of God and each other. And we don’t need to abuse alcohol to get there.