Rabbi Charles P. Sherman
My dear friends, I believe that every one of us has used the Hebrew and Yiddish word which I titled tonight’s sermon, probably often. For example, when we conclude the service tonight, we’re going to make kiddush in the auditorium. At the end of kiddush many of us are going to say “l’chayim” before we take a drink.
Until recently I had not known the origin of this l’chayim custom; I learned it from the writings of Rabbi Robert Scheinberg. He explained that this custom goes all the way back to Midrash Tanhuma, a book more than a thousand years old which contains many ancient Midrashim. The Midrash says: “when there was a death penalty trial and the verdict was about to be announced, one of the judges would say ‘Attention Justices, what is your verdict?’”
If the verdict was guilty, all the judges would say “la-mitah,” which means “to death.” If the verdict was not guilty, all the judges would call out “l’chayim,” which means “to life.” According to Rabbi Scheinberg, that is the origin of the custom of calling out “l’chayim” after we make kiddush.
So what is the connection, the link between the way that the jury in a capital case announced its verdict and the word we call out after we make kiddush? How can this most famous Jewish toast, which we all say on happy occasions, come from the procedure in death penalty court cases in antiquity? What does one have to do with the other?
Rabbi Scheinberg’s explanation is that we use the same word, l’chayim, in both places – in the courtroom and in the social hall – to teach us that drinking is also a matter of life and death. It is not just a casual thing that we do when we take a drink; it is something that literally has the power to enhance or to destroy our lives.
Ifyou don’t believe me, ask the bereaved family of a teenager who drank too much and then drove and died. Or ask on behalf of the individual who did not drink anything at all but who was driving along the road at a proper speed, minding his own business, when someone else who was driving under the influence smashed into his car. If you don’t believe the life and death power of alcohol, ask children whose happy home was destroyed because one or both of the parents could not control their drinking and ended up making their home into a battlefield as a result.
Many rabbis of a prior generation never preached a sermon warning their congregants about the dangers of excessive drinking because they, and some of us, grew up with the belief that Jews do not drink too much. We heard that for Jews alcohol is not forbidden – which is what makes it so attractive to others – the “forbidden fruit.” The Psalmist said that wine “gladdens the heart of human beings,” and there is hardly a social event in Jewish life which doesn’t involve at least a bit of wine. We give an infant boy a taste of wine to alleviate the discomfort of his Brit Milah. Every Friday evening there is wine on the Shabbat dinner table. At our seder we drink four cups of wine, and on Purim we are supposed to drink enough that we cannot differentiate between “blessed be Mordecai and cursed be Haman.” As a result of our open attitude toward drinking, we Jews were supposed to be less prone to become drunks. At one time you would hear older Jews saying “shikkur is a goy, only Gentiles are drunks.”
Well, while that was the case once, it is not true any longer. Ask social workers or anyone who deals with addictions, and they will tell you that today Jews are no different than any other group in the percentage of people who suffer from addictions to alcohol or to drugs. Ask the people who run JAFA, the Jewish Association for Alcoholics. They will tell you there are Jewish drunkards whether we admit it or not. Go to one of the weekends they sponsor for recovering alcoholics, and you will find Jews who wear tallit and tefillin at the services. Yes, I am afraid if being like everyone else was one of our assimilationist goals, in the area of addiction we’ve made it. And in some areas, such as gambling and drugs, we may even have a decided advantage.
Let me share a rabbinic eye-opening experience. I often utilize the writings of a Florida colleague, Rabbi Jack Riemer. He wrote: “I must tell you that I did not believe that drinking was a real problem for Jews until last summer. A bride and groom came to see me for a pre-marital interview. We went over all the details of the wedding ceremony and then I asked them if they had any questions. There was a long silence, and then the groom spoke.
He said to me: “Rabbi I have a request to make.”
I said: “Sure, what is it?”
He said: “Is it possible for you to use grape juice instead of wine in the ceremony?”
I said: “Yes,” and then I asked him why. And this is what he replied.
“I am a recovering alcoholic and I am afraid that if I go off the wagon even once, I will not be able to get back on.”
Rabbi Reimer concludes: “Since that day, I make it a point to ask every bride and groom with whom I meet which they want – grape juice or wine – because I do not want to take any chances. Better a moment’s embarrassment than a serious danger.”
Now you are all astute listeners and you know that I am speaking about this subject of alcoholism and addiction today because this is Shabbat Noach, and Noah was the first drunkard in history. He comes out of the ark and plants a vineyard. Then he drinks from the wine, becomes drunk and uncovers himself in his tent.
Now I must tell you that I do not blame Noah for getting drunk. Imagine what it must have been like to carry the burden, the stress of knowing that God was going to destroy the world, and that you have to build an ark to save a handful of animals and humans, and then will have to shepherd them through this cataclysm for almost a year. Noah saw his entire world go under. He saw every house, every tree, every street sign float away. He witnessed every person whom he knew outside of his own immediate family die in the great flood. I can imagine that Noah must have been haunted by the pleading screams of his neighbors and friends when God began flooding the earth and they had no place to go.
Then Noah emerged into a world which he could no longer recognize. He must have felt so lonely and isolated. He must have felt so guilty for having survived when almost no one else did. He must have felt so badly that he had not done more to persuade his friends and neighbors to repent. He was depressed at being the only one who survived the flood. We label this “survivor’s guilt.”
Shall we blame him for getting drunk so that he could dull the pain he felt at seeing his whole world wiped out? How many of us here immediately turn to the liquor cabinet to dull the pain after a tough day or when we have heard bad news? Noah was no different than we are. He had every reason to want a drink. Yet because something is understandable does not make it right, and it certainly does not make it good. It is like the old story of the drunk who tells his friend that he drinks to forget. “What do you want to forget?” asks the sympathetic friend. The drunk replies: “I want to forget that I drink too much.”
Today we know that addiction may well have a genetic component to it. Some people are more prone to addiction than others. But knowing that one is prone to addiction does not justify it or excuse the continued abuse any more than being a diabetic excuses one from not being careful about one’s diet.
Life can be unbearable at times. The problems we face can be overwhelming, but that does not mean we should not try to act in a responsible manner or seek help when we need it. Instead of turning to his family or turning to God, Noah chose to drink.
When his sons find their father rolling around naked in his tent in a drunken stupor, two of his children cover him up. We usually understand this as a sign of respect for their father. But it may have another meaning. Perhaps the reason that the children of Noah covered him up was because they were like us – when someone in our family becomes an alcoholic, our first reaction is often to cover it up. We do not want the neighbors to find out for it will be a Shande if they do; as a result, we become partners in this individual’s denial of reality. Instead of persuading him or her to get help, we go along with their claim that they are all right and allow their self-deception and denial to continue. That does no one any good, but it is the easiest and often the most common response when someone in our family becomes an addict.
When Noah wakes up and finds out that his children know what he has done, Noah’s first reaction is to strike out at them in anger. He curses one of them for being disrespectful of his privacy. And that is also the way many of us respond when we are confronted by our families with the reality of what we are doing. Instead of taking responsibility for our own actions, we lash out in anger at those who try to make us understand what we are doing to ourselves. We alienate ourselves from those who care most about us, because we do not want to hear the truth of what they are trying to tell us.
Like Noah, we are all geniuses at rationalizing – it’s your fault, it’s his fault, it’s anyone’s fault, but it is never my fault. The truth is that “there are a thousand reasons to take a drink or pop a pill. There is only one valid reason for not doing so: that it could cost you your life if you do.”
I am afraid we have created a culture in which some, maybe many, of our children grow up believing that the sign of being a grownup is the ability to drink. What we need to do is create a culture in which our children understand that the sign of being a grownup is the ability to say “no” to things that can harm us.
Let me suggest a simple rule. If you feel you need a drink, you probably should not. Having a drink socially to heighten the joy of a moment may be okay. But when you are drinking – often by yourself – because you feel bad, you should ask yourself – how else can I address my pain or discomfort.
Judaism condoned alcohol by sanctifying it. In moments of celebration and rejoicing, moderate drinking was an appropriate outlet. But alcohol is not medicine and it certainly should not be a crutch. One of the problems in our society is that we make drinking look so glamorous and sexy that every kid can’t wait to take that first drink. People who are drinking look like they are having so much fun, so who would not want to indulge?
The trouble with getting drunk in order to forget your problems is that when you wake up the next morning, you still have the same problems – plus a hangover. Drinking does not solve problems or make them go away. It only enables us to drown them for a little while; but, when we awake, we have to face them just the same.
Watch the daily news. A week does not pass without a life shattered by drunkenness and addiction. We hear or read about a woman driving her car on the wrong side of the highway because she combined alcohol and drugs before getting in the car with her children. Or buddies destroyed because they’re racing their boat much, much too fast in an improper area after partying too much.
These are the dramatic stories which make the front page. We don’t read about the many families shattered by addiction, lives lost to alcoholism, and children and spouses who are the victims of abuse. We don’t hear about the kids who end up in the emergency room after drinking at frat parties, or the silent addiction that takes place just next door in our own neighborhood.
I am not recommending that we should not have an occasional drink. But I am suggesting that we are living in a society which celebrates over-indulgence and dependency. The answer to every problem is not in a bottle or a pill. Instead of addressing our pain, we dull it. Instead of experiencing life, we evade it. From the time of Noah on, the world has known that alcohol and mind-altering substances can be a way of escaping from the world rather than living in it.
A little more than three weeks ago, on Yom Kippur, we recited the Al Chayt, the Great Confessional. We said “Al Chayt she-cha-ta-nu L’Fanecha B’ma-achal uv-mish-teh – for the sin we have committed against you by the way we eat and by the way we drink.”
What does that mean? I do not think for a second that it means violating the laws of kashrut. There are no ritual sins on this Al Chayt list, only ethical ones. No, this Al Chayt does not refer to kashrut. I believe it refers to over-eating, which causes obesity – which has become a national obsession. I believe it refers to bulimia and anorexia, which are not sins in themselves, but which we are guilty of sin if we do nothing to get help and treat them.
And I do not believe that the sin of drinking in the Al Chayt refers to drinking wine which is a brand other than Manischewitz. It refers to drinking too much and therefore endangering our own lives and the lives of those who drive with us and the lives of those who live with us.Teshuvah – turning our lives around – is the basic theme and summons of our Holydays. Judaism insists that we can change. That is why I have the greatest respect for recovering alcoholics. Every single day they resist what can be a very strong temptation/urge to drink. Kol ha-Kavod – all honor to them.
My friends, let me leave you with this lesson. Life can be intoxicating; we do not need alcohol or drugs to experience the miracles of this world. There is so much good, so much wonder, so much joy to be found in the everyday and the common place. The best drink is to drink fully and completely of life. That is the greatest pleasure of all. If you agree, then join me – l’chayim. Amen.
I gladly acknowledge the work of Rabbis
Jack Riemer and Mark Greenspan
which shaped this message.