Rabbi Milevsky's Thought of the Week: Shelach - 5771
WINE AS A SYMBOL OF JEWISHNESS
In the beginning of this week's Parsha the Torah describes the departure of the twelve spies to the land of Canaan. Most of the details given concern the instructions that the spies receive from Moshe.
The Torah tells us that Moshe said to them: "Go into the South, and go up into the mountains; and see the land, what it is; and the people that live there, whether they are strong or weak, whether they are few or many; and what the land is that they dwell in, whether it is good or bad; and what cities they are that they dwell in, whether in camps, or in strongholds; and what the land is, whether it is fat or lean, whether there is wood therein, or not.” However, the section ends by telling us that, "The days were the days when the first grapes ripen." This additional piece of information is, on the surface, unnecessary. What difference does it make to us at what stage of development the grapes were at that time?
In the next few lines, I would like to discuss something that I enjoy (in moderation, of course), and that is wine.
After a long and tiring week, there is nothing we Jews appreciate more than sitting down for our Shabbat meal. Many of us start our meal with a goblet filled to the top with an intoxicating beverage made from fermented grape juice, known as wine.
Throughout our tradition, wine has represented the physical pleasure of this world. When the prophet Amos rebukes the Israelites for their behavior and involvement in worldly gratification he says "You who drink wine in bowls." Wine is a symbol for all pleasures.
One may think, based on the admonition of the prophet, that wine is bad, something that should be avoided, like non-kosher food. However, we know that such a view is incorrect. There is a very special Mitzvah we do with wine, that when we make Kiddush, to sanctify the name of the Al-Mighty in this world, we raise a cup of wine and make the blessing, a clear indication that wine is good.
So let me ask, is it good or bad? The answer is that it all depends on how it is used. When we use wine just for the sake of pleasure, wine is evil, because we are using it as a tool to distance ourselves from the Creator. On the other hand when we take the cup, lift it and make the blessing, to thank HaShem for this pleasure, we elevate the mundane, showing that our use of this world is only for the sake of HaShem, and thus we are performing a great Mitzvah.
The Talmud (Eiruvin 65) tells us that wine was created for two reasons, to comfort mourners and to pay evil doers their reward in this world. When the evil man drinks his wine, it is a sin distancing himself from good; for the mourner it is a tool for good to cheer him up and facilitate his return to a normal and happy life. Wine is really a metaphor for all physical pleasures which can be used for the good, as an instrument to connect to HaShem. On the other hand, when pleasure is pursued just for the sake of pleasure, when we want to maximize every opportunity of enjoyment, we become void of holiness and create a gap between ourselves and HaShem.
If wine is so significant, a tool for both good and bad, and a symbol for all pleasures, we can only imagine the day on which it becomes ready. The winemaker goes down to the cellar, after waiting for weeks from the time of the crushing, opens a barrel of wine, takes a sniff, and then enjoys a true delight. That moment of enjoyment may be used spiritually to thank the Maker of the world for so great a delight, thus elevating the wine by using it as a medium to connect to HaShem. On the other hand, if the winemaker gets involved in the pleasure alone, the same wine may cause him to lose any human semblance and he will become like a beast.
The day of wine is a very important day, a day that represents how we, as Jews, are using this world. Is the world a medium to connect to HaShem or are we hedonistic beasts, only interested in our own pleasure?
That is why the Torah tells us that the spies left the wilderness on the day the first grapes ripen. Our Oral Tradition says that they began their journey on the twenty ninth of the month of Sivan and that it takes wine forty days to ferment. Accordingly, the Torah is informing us that the spies returned from the land on the ninth of Av, Tisha B'Av.
Tisha B'Av is that powerful day, the day of wine. Unfortunately, our nation used the physical world, symbolized by wine, to distance itself from HaShem, causing that day to become one of destruction.
Hopefully soon we will all use wine and all worldly pleasures for the right purpose, as a way to connect to HaShem and merit to see the day of wine - Tisha B'Av -turn into a great holiday.