My colleague, Rabbi Michael Gold, suggests: “If you really need to blame someone, then blame Noah. It all began with him. He planted the 1st vineyard and he was the 1st drunk. All the misery, unhappiness and tragedy that have been recorded since the beginning of time as a result of alcoholism and addiction can be traced back to Noah’s actions shortly after the great flood.”
Not that Jews view alcohol as a bad thing. We Jews are known to raise a glass at Kiddush. The Psalmist teaches that wine, “gladdens the heart.” There’s hardly a sacred event in Jewish life that doesn’t involve at least a bit of wine. We give an infant boy a bit of wine to temper the discomfort at his Bris and every Friday and Yom Tov night we make Kiddush over wine in our homes. At the Passover Seder we even drink 4 cups of wine! And then there’s Purim, when we’re supposed to drink enough alcohol so we can’t differentiate between Baruch Mordechai and Arur Haman, “Blessed be Mordechai and cursed be Haman.”
Jews aren’t prudish when it comes to alcohol. We like to claim that as a result of our liberal attitude toward drinking, we are less prone to be drunks. It was reinforced by the old Yiddish folk-song that became a proverb: Shikur iz a goy, “Gentiles are the drunks.” Today, we know full well this is just not true. The reality is that alcoholism and drug addiction do not discriminate—they affect Jews as often as they do any other group. And so it is with other forms of addiction, such as gambling and sexual addiction.
So maybe we should blame Noah. After all, he started it. Immediately after the great flood Noah went out and planted a vineyard. The next thing the Torah (Gen. 9:21) says is that Noah “became drunk and uncovered himself in his tent.” The Torah doesn’t tell us what this means. What it implies is something we know all too well: drunkenness impairs one’s ability to make sound judgment. When Cham finds his father Noah naked and drunk, he thinks it’s pretty funny and tells his brothers. They have the presence of mind to cover up their father’s nakedness.
Does this sound familiar? How often do families “cover up” their loved one’s addictions? When Noah awakens from his stupor and discovers what’s happened, he curses Cham and blesses his other 2 sons. In a sense, Noah sets a pattern that continues till now in which the addict blames others for his faults.
But the truth is Noah is not a bad man. In fact the Torah describes him as: Ish tzadik tamim haya b’dorotav, “He was a wholly righteous man in his generation.” What brought him to this? Can we imagine what it must have been like to carry the burden of knowing Gd was going to destroy the world, then having to build an ark in the middle of nowhere—far from any body of water? He must have been the laughing stock of the neighborhood. And once the flood started he had to supervise the entrance of all those animals and his family and then having to shepherd them through this cataclysm for almost a year? I can imagine that Noah must have been haunted by the screams and pleading of his neighbors and friends when the flood waters began to rise and they had no place to go…and then to see the carnage and dead bodies when the waters receded. Psychologists have a name for this: survivor’s guilt.
We can understand that the 1st thing Noah did when he left the ark was to get a drink. How many of us turn to the liquor cabinet after a tough day or when we have heard bad news to dull the pain. But Noah sought to drown himself in drink and block out all those bad memories. But the fact that something is understandable doesn’t make it right.
Today, we know that addiction has a genetic component to it. Some people are more prone to addiction than others. But knowing that one is prone to addiction doesn’t 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 and the problems we face can be over whelming but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t try to act in a responsible manner or seek help when we need it. Instead of turning to his family or turning to Gd, Noah crawled into his tent and began to drink.
Let me suggest a simple rule: if you feel a drink will help relax you after a difficult day…or you’re with friends and want to make a l’chaim, go ahead and have one. But if you feel you’re going to need more than one…if you feel like you need a drink more than you want a drink…you probably shouldn’t start. If you drink because you feel bad or you are depressed, you should ask yourself: how else can I address my pain or my discomfort? Judaism condoned alcohol by sanctifying it in moments of celebration and rejoicing. But alcohol is not medicine and it certainly shouldn’t be a crutch.
The problem here is that the line between acceptable and improper alcohol consumption is complicated. The problem in our society is that we make drinking so glamorous and sexy that every kid can’t wait to take that 1st drink. And all the advertisements about “drinking responsibility” make about as much sense as putting a statement on a package of cigarettes saying that smoking causes cancer. The people who are drinking look like they’re having so much fun, and they’re so, so beautiful…who wouldn’t want to indulge.
And yet all you need to do is to pay attention to the news and you’ll see the fruits of this kind of behavior. We hear about a woman driving her car on to the wrong side of the highway because she combined alcohol and drugs before getting in the car with her children…or a family destroyed because they were racing their boat much too fast after partying.
Those are the dramatic stories that make the paper; we don’t read about 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 land up in the emergency room after drinking at frat parties, or the silent addiction that takes place just next door on our own street.
I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t have an occasional drink. Gd knows, I do. What I am suggesting is that we are living in a society that celebrates over-indulgence and dependency. The answer to every problem is a pill or in a glass. Instead of addressing our pain, we dull it. Instead of experiencing life we numb it. Noah showed us that alcohol and drugs can be a way of escaping from the world rather than living in it.
And if you’re the one with the addiction, you have a responsibility to begin with yourself. There are a thousand reasons to take a drink or pop a pill, and only one for not doing so—you may be saving your life and the lives of your families.
Here’s the bottom line of this message. The truth is life can be intoxicating—especially Jewish life. You don’t need alcohol or drugs to experience the miracles of the world. That’s where the greatest highs are. There’s so much good, so much wonder, so much joy to be found in the everyday and the common place. The best drink, the greatest pleasure of all is to drink fully and completely from the cup of life! Amen!
Rabbi Mark Hillel Kunis