Sunday, September 14, 2008

1:2:134--Moderation in All Things, Including Moderation

I'm way too much of a wine lover -- and one who must admit to having had a few too many on a few (too many?) occasions -- to resist this midrash featuring Noah and Satan, with the latter asking if he can help the former plant his vineyard. Satan slaughters over a vine, in succession, a lamb, a lion, a monkey, and finally a pig. The midrash tells us that this was "Satan's way of saying" that after one cup of wine, a man is humble and meek as a lamb; after two cups, a mighty braggart who thinks he's as strong as a lion; after three or four cups, like a monkey, "hopping and giggling, and uttering obscenities in public, without realizing what he is doing;" and, ultimately, blind drunk, he is like a pig, "wallowing in mire and coming to rest among refuse." In conclusion, we are told that all of the above later befell Noah.

Satan appears to be giving some implied advice on moderation. But since it's Satan who's doing the "talking" here, perhaps we ought to take his accuracy, or at least his motives, with a grain a salt. After all, the midrash begins with Satan asking what a vineyard is, and Noah explaining that its fruit is used to make wine, "which gladdens a man's heart." And the midrash does not seem to suggest that Satan imbued wine with the power to effect people in this way: his "charade" is presented as a way of describing the inherent qualities of the wine.

So, does wine really gladden the heart? The Torah and prophets are replete with references supporting this notion. A few examples:

"And you shall spend that money for anything that your soul will desire: for herd and for flock and for wine and for beer and for anything that your soul will ask of you. And you shall eat there in front of YHWH, your God, and you shall rejoice, you and your household." Deuteronomy 14:26

"[God] causes the grass to grow for the cattle . . . and wine that makes glad the heart of man." Psalms 104:14-15

“Should I leave my wine, which cheers God and man, and go to be promoted over the trees?" Judges 9:13

Moreover, an abundance of wine is a blessing from God ("And it shall come to pass in that day, that the mountains shall drop down sweet wine . . . ." Joel 4:18), and a lack of wine marks hardship or even God's judgment ("[B]ecause you trample upon the poor . . . you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink wine from them." Amos 5:11).

And, of course, on Pesach we are commanded to drink four cups of wine, most often explained as a commemoration of the so-called "four expressions of redemption" from Egypt: "I am YHWH, and I shall bring you out from under Egypt's burdens, and I shall rescue you from their toil, and I shall redeem you with an outstretched arm and with tremendous judgments, and I shall take you to me as a people, and I shall become your God . . . ." (Exodus 6:6-7) We are expected to become at least a little bit tipsy as a result, and certainly to rejoice with a glad heart. Moreover, notwithstanding the four cups, we are not expected to become unruly monkeys or come to rest in refuse . . . .

In my personal experience, I would say that wine in the "right" amount -- and this varies from person to person -- really does gladden the heart in most cases. It goes without saying that there are exceptions, whether because of the imbiber's tolerance for wine, his or her mental and emotional state when drinking, or both. (And then there's also really bad wine.)

Turning to Satan's "charade," do successive cups of wine really result in the inevitable deterioration described in the midrash? None of these perils are unfamiliar, but I would say these are far less universal than wine's positive effects. Moreover, in my personal experience, the first three stages of the "progression" described might more accurately refer to alternative states of individual drinkers who've had too much: some become quiet and meek, some become aggressive, others become silly to the point of embarrassment. In the end, we all reach our limit and must "come to rest" -- perhaps in the mire and the refuse, but hopefully in our warm bed (or in a taxi) having wished our dinner companions a (somewhat slurred) good night.

The source of the aphorism, "All things in moderation," may be unclear, but its influence in contemporary religious (and especially Christian) circles is quite pronounced. But whereas Christianity seems to place all of the emphasis on the "moderation," Judaism also places some significant amount of importance on the "all things" -- experiencing and enjoying each and every one of the pleasures available to us is a positive good. (Moreover, although Jewish religious tradition has some traces of asceticism, it is uncontroversial to say that Judaism generally and strenuously rejects asceticism -- human appetites and worldly pleasures are viewed as neither unholy nor evil.)

Now, I am not arguing against moderation when it comes to wine or anything else. But as my title indicates, I am fond of the revised version of the aphorism: "Moderation in all things, including moderation." Even moderation is not to observed immoderately. The drinking of wine, even to the point of drunkenness, does not inevitably lead to unattractive drunken behavior; and even if it does, it's ok to get drunk every once in a while. After all, we are told in the end that "all of the above later befell Noah" -- a "virtuous man" who was "unblemished in his generations" and "walked with God." (Genesis 6:9)

We are not only to be mindful of Satan's warning, but also of the possibility of missing out on the wine that gladdens our heart. Perhaps the risk of drinking too much every now and again is better than the risk of not tasting the wine at all.

1 comment:

BZ said...

Tanach is also full of passages about the destructive effects of intoxication, including:
- the Noah story in question, of course
- the story of Lot and his daughters
- the rebellious son ("he is a glutton and a drunkard")
- the book of Esther (Achashverosh is portrayed as drunk and criminally stupid)
- the first part of Proverbs 31
- Isaiah 28