Let’s talk about wine. There seems to be a lot of it. In Judaism, and many other religions, wine is used in ceremonial proceedings of various varieties. In Jewish practice wine is used to help sanctify holy days. The cycle of holidays during the year has dozens of blessings over wine. At Jewish weddings several cups of wine are used under the wedding canopy (chuppah), and a baby boy receives his name at the circumcision with a blessing over wine. Why wine?
To understand, we need to go way back. All the way back to the very beginning. When Adam and Eve were in the Garden of Eden G-d warned them not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge saying, “On the day you eat from it, you will die” (Genesis 3:6). One opinion in the Talmud (Brachos 40a) tells us that the Tree of Knowledge was in fact a grapevine. The beverage we use to sanctify almost every single Jewish occasion comes with the oldest warning label in history.
Another incredibly ancient Jewish idea is that of the Golden Mean. A cornerstone throughout Torah and then popularized by the great commentator Rabbi Moshe Ben Maimon (Rambam), the Golden Mean is tenant of Judaism. As the Chosen People we are expected to have emunah, faith, in G-d. To trust the Torah and all its commandments. To try and understand as best we can, but to follow the words of Hashem even with the lack of understanding. We are a people of intense spirituality and inexplicable connections to fellow Jews and the land of Israel.
Yet the Torah is full of commandments that require physical activity. Building a sukkah, cleaning for Pesach, shaking a lulav, fasting on Yom Kippur, and staying up all night learning on Shavuot are just a handful of the things we do with our bodies to express our connection to Hashem. So which is it? Are we in the pursuit of the physical or spiritual?
Rambam answers with the Golden Mean. Our role is to combine the two, marry the spiritual and the physical. Elevate the physical with G-dly direction, and ground the spiritual into our world and our lives. The balance needs constant maintenance, constant tending. With every step you take in one direction the fragile balance can be disturbed and everything can come tumbling down.
Hashem warns Adam and Eve that partaking in something like wine is a delicate journey. It can be pleasurable, even healthy according studies, to drink wine. But one step too far and you lose your head. Too many steps after that and you can spiral into a dark tunnel that can cause uncharted devastation. Adam and Eve weren’t careful enough, and their descendants carry their curse until this day. We use wine at holidays, at weddings and circumcisions, to remind us constantly of our role as Jews. The cycle of Jewish life can become routine. The holidays, the calendar. The wine reminds as that our actions have holiness, and our connection with G-d can be tangible. The choice isn’t between physical and spiritual, rather an obligation to both. Take this drink, sanctify this day, elevate the physical, and ground the spiritual.
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