On the Other Hand: Ten Minutes of Torah: Fruit of the Vine - Parashat Noach

In Judaism, it's common to perform ritual and celebrate festivals with a glass of wine, but how do we do so while honoring those in recovery and their loved ones? This week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs talks about Parashat Noach and how Noah's troubled relationship with alcohol can shed light on how we partner ritual and wine Jewishly and responsibly. 

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[URJ Intro] Welcome back to On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah a podcast presented by ReformJudaism.org. Each week, Rabbi Rick Jacobs, the President of the Union for Reform Judaism, shares a little bit about the weekly Torah portion in about 10 minutes or less. This week, Rabbi Jacobs teaches us about Parashat Noach And he asks how we can ensure that people in recovery and their families feel comfortable in light of the ever presence of wine in Jewish rituals. What can we change? And what do we have to do?

[Rabbi Rick Jacobs] This week, we focus our attention on Parashat Noach, the second Torah portion of the Book of Genesis, therefore, the second Torah portion of the entire new cycle. And who hasn't heard a tiny bit about the Noah story? Obviously, pretty much anyone who has been listening to any popular culture-- Noah, of course, the flood, the ark, the animals. The piece that probably doesn't get much attention is what happens right after the flood, after Noah brings the animals out and the beginning of a fresh start. What happens in Chapter 9 Verse 20 of the Book of Genesis is the following. Noah, the tiller of the soil, was the first to plant a vineyard. So you think, you know, what's the first thing you'd do after a cataclysmic incredibly demanding moment in your life? What Noah does is he basically prepares for a celebration. Now he plants the vineyard. Evidently, he's able to reap the fruits of that vineyard. And in the very next verse, we learn that he drank the wine, became drunk. And all kinds of things unfolded after that. Now, in digging into the Torah portion, particularly wanting to understand, what does it mean that the first thing he does is plant a vineyard and get drunk.

I turn to Rashi. Rashi, you may know, is the master commentator of the Jewish tradition, and certainly of the Torah. He was born in a French city about 25 miles from Paris. And he was a vintner. He raised wine, evidently pretty good wine, not that I would know, but that's the word on Rashi. So I was really curious, what does Rashi the vintner say about Noah, the one who first planted a vineyard? And what was kind of surprising is, he says, it was pretty natural for Noah, because, he according to Rashi, brought into the Ark, not only animals, but he brought grape vines. He was already planting in his head the vineyard that we learned about in Chapter 9. What doesn't get any real attention from Rashi is the fact that Noah gets drunk. And you think a vintner maybe would want to defend Noah, that maybe he just got to look too carried away with a Cabernet or a Merlot, but he kind of leaves it alone. So I'd like in this podcast to really think out loud with all of you about our tradition and drinking wine. Where is it? And how essential is it? Because it goes back to this narrative from the Book of Genesis.

And you know, I think of a lot of times when we raise l'chaim in our tradition on holidays, just a couple of weeks ago with all the Jewish holidays, we're still experiencing, making kiddush making a berakhah, a blessing, over wine to bless the day is a very, very kind of cornerstone ritual activity in the Jewish tradition. It turns out the borei p’ri hagafen is creator of the fruit of the vine. It doesn't require wine. It requires grapes. So you could be doing all that with grape juice. But I want to reflect that that's not often the case.

So when I was a rabbi in a wonderful congregation in Downtown Brooklyn, I remember a member of the congregation came up to me and said, could I talk to you for a second, rabbi? Of course, of course. And the person shared that every day they find themselves in a church. This person was in recovery from alcohol and went to AA groups every single day always in a church. He said, rabbi, do you not know that this is a big issue of concern in the Jewish community? And I got to tell you, it doesn't feel so good that only churches seem to actually know how important it is to have a spiritual response to alcoholism, addiction, and to help us in our recovery. I thought to myself, that doesn't sound like the responsible Jewish community that I love. And so in the early '80s, we began an AA group in our synagogue. And it turns out that, of all the things we did, this one, every-- we did it twice a week-- had a huge following. And and it really was an affirmation that we as a Jewish community saw. We saw who was in our community and wanted to bring the spiritual resources of Judaism to be supportive. It also led me to think, why were we always serving wine on the bema? Why were we always passing out little cups with wine to all the people gathered? Because I was told many times by parents of a bar or bat mitzvah or at a baby naming, privately and usually very, very hesitantly, rabbi, is it possible we could use juice and not wine? I am in recovery. And I don't want to have an awkward moment, even with a bride and groom under the chuppah. And it led me to have basically the bema as a wine-free zone. I know some of you listening are going, really? Oh man, that takes, like, half the fun out of being Jewish. But the idea that people in recovery would be made uncomfortable in our ritual settings seemed to me something unthinkable. So I really just raise the question of, where is our tradition? We have so many Jewish teachings about wine. Think of Numbers Rabbah. It says, "as wine enters each and every part of a human being's body, it grows lax and the person's mind becomes confused. Once wine enters," the teaching goes, "reason leaves." Well, that may be many of our experiences with wine and alcohol. And a tradition that venerates thinking and acuity of mind certainly presents challenges.

We also know-- I was, not that long ago, at a wonderful traditional synagogue. And I was introduced to the concept of kiddush clubs. In a very traditional synagogues, on Shabbat's morning, while the davening is going on, people duck out in small groups. And they go and have a l'chaim. I also know being on college campuses, hearing from wonderful students from our movement saying, you know, this ultra-orthodox group, they teach Torah. But on Friday night, boy, they make l'chaim. And it's really exciting to be there. What I've got to say is, I think we as a Jewish community have to be eyes wide open, and paying attention, and being attentive to the place that wine can have. And again, there is nothing wrong with wine. And for the longest time, we thought as Jews that we didn't even have alcohol abuse, because that wasn't a Jewish thing. You know, we made wine a normative part of ritual, of Shabbat dinner. It didn't become this thing that was forbidden. But it turns out an alcoholic can be someone who lives on the street. It can be a lawyer, a businesswoman, a congressperson, a member of Knesset, a rabbi, an anyone.

And the other piece I wanted to just dig into a little bit is that there are people who have gone to AA and say, is it really a non-religious or non-denominational frame that AA offers? Can Jews go through the 12 steps? And I looked actually through a number of different analyses of this. And I think if you go through the 12 steps, every single one of them has a Jewish analog. This idea that the first step is to realize we're powerless over alcohol and only a force greater than ourselves can return us to our strength, I think the Jewish tradition has a pretty strong idea that God is that reality, and to think about how do we turn to prayer? How do we turn to study? How do we turn to community to help us walk the path? So I actually think that there is no problem with AA. And in fact, more than not being a problem, it seems pretty clear that AA is a huge resource. And I know that as many of us see, now synagogues actually have AA groups, and are acknowledging the reality of addiction in our community, and trying to figure out how do we swim with our Jewish tradition.

Now, you think of Passover Seder, four cups of wine. You think of Purim and getting so drunk that you can't tell the difference between Mordechai and Haemon. So you have embedded so many different parts of our ritual-- think of the bris of a baby, a baby boy, maybe a brit banoh, the brit bat for girls, and the idea of dipping a little bit of wine into a baby's mouth to give it the sweetness and maybe a little alcohol is thought always to be a very positive thing. But remember, there is no reason that you can't have four cups of juice at Seder. And there is no, I don't believe, religious obligation to imbibe, even at Purim. And I think that we as a tradition, we're not we're not trying to take and make something that's joyful and pleasant for many and to make it a forbidden part of our tradition, but I do think an awareness of who we are and of the dangers of venerating, ritually venerating drinking.

So I know that I've actually had conversations with some of those who lead the ultraorthodox groups on campus, and question of underage drinking, and all of the attendant challenges. So here we are, the book of Noah. Noah has just been through a really stressful time. And he'd like to have a little drink just to relax a little bit. But what happens in the Noah story, after he has his little drink, is that something goes so terribly wrong. The text says, he drank of the wine and became drunk. And he uncovered himself within his tent. One of his kids came and saw his father's nakedness, told the brothers. And there is a huge interpretation about what exactly it means to have one's nakedness uncovered, but the truth is it leads to a whole spiraling, and spiraling downward. And in those moments when we lose control, when we lose our ability to make rational and thoughtful decisions for ourselves and for our families, those are very, very challenging moments. There is this Midrash in Midrash Tanhuma that says, speaking about Satan's way of saying, that when a person drinks one cup of wine, that person acts like a lamb, humble and meek, very calm. But when that person drinks two cups, they become as mighty as a lion and proceed to brag extravagantly. But then when that person drinks three or four cups, the person becomes like a monkey, hopping about, dancing, giggling, and uttering obscenities in public without realizing what the person is doing. Finally, when that person becomes blind drunk, they act in the most objectionable ways.

So I think the tradition was aware, even as we see it as a part of Purim, and Passover, and Shabbat, and all happy occasions, and making l'chaim, that tradition understood that there was always a dark side, a dangerous side to the consumption of alcohol, and not just wine, but obviously hard liquor as well. So I think that already in the second Torah portion we've got a kind of a wake up call, a call to awareness. And Naoh remembers, is not the founder of the Jewish people-- that comes next week with Abraham-- but Noah is called by our tradition a Tzadik. He's called a righteous one. And he's someone who is able to save life on Earth as we know it. And is this simply a moment of weakness? Or is this, in fact, a moment where he is just doing what people in antiquity did? It was very customary. So obviously, Rashi, the great commentator was able to be a vintner and a brilliant learned person, so it's not to say that enjoying wine means that one automatically is losing control.

But let's take control of our Jewish tradition. Let's hit control of our celebrations. And let's be aware of the many different types of people who come to celebrate with us. And let's make it comfortable for them, not uncomfortable. And let's bring the spiritual resources of our tradition to help people who are in recovery stay in recovery and gain back the wholeness and the sobriety that are so important to a meaningful life well lived.

So just two weeks into the new cycle, each time finding something that we may not have paid attention to-- but there is a bit of learning for each of us each and every week. And we look forward to open each of the parshiot, the Torah portions, as we make our way through this cycle in the year 5780. And if we say l'chaim to life, we can say to our delicious glass of grape juice. We could say it over a Cabernet, or Merlot, or some other wine. But let's be aware. And let's make this a great year of celebration, not for some of us, but for all of us.

[URJ Outro] Thanks for joining us on this week's episode of On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah. Want more? You can download a new episode each Monday on Apple Podcasts, or Google Play, or Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. And if you like what you hear, write us a review or share the podcast with a friend. For daily ongoing conversations about Jewish holidays, pop culture, rituals, current events, and more, visit ReformJudaism.org. And follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. You can also follow Rabbi Jacobs on Twitter at @URJPresident. On the Other Hand, 10 Minutes of Torah is a project of the Union for Reform Judaism, a leading voice in the discussion of modern Jewish life.

And until next week, l'hitraot!