Counting Our Blessings

For the week ending 6 May 2023 / 15 Iyar 5783

Kiddush (Part 1): Unity Through Separation

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“Although you may enjoy the rest and the tranquility of Shabbat, have in mind that you are not observing the day for your own pleasure; rather to honor the One who commanded you to do so.”

Sefat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter)

One of the more obvious symbols in the Jewish cycle is wine. Many rituals are accompanied by a cup that brims over with wine. When a couple marries, they drink wine under the Chuppah. At the seven days of celebration after the wedding, special blessings are recited, which conclude with a blessing over wine. When a Brit Milah is performed, a blessing is recited over a cup of wine. There is wine at a Pidyon HaBen (redemption of a first-born son). We herald in Shabbat and Yom Tov with wine and, similarly, we take leave of them with a cup of wine.

On the face of it, this may not seem remarkable. Anyone familiar with Jewish rituals knows that wine nearly always plays a very prominent role. However, when one thinks about it, it really is rather surprising because of the potentially destructive nature of wine. Wine has played a very conspicuous role in the downfall of mankind almost since the beginning of history. According to Rabbi Meir (Tractate Brachot 40a) the Tree of Knowledge was a grapevine because “there is nothing that brings [more] wailing upon man as wine.” Rabbi Meir is teaching us that it was the latent destructiveness of wine that caused Adam and Chavah to sin and it is the same latent destructiveness that is the cause of so much sorrow up to and including today. The Talmud continues by describing how, on leaving the Ark after having been constrained within it for a whole year, Noach planted a vineyard and became drunk from its wine which directly led to his degradation (Ber. 9:20-21). And in both the Torah and the Prophets the list of tragedies that occurred because of excessive wine drinking seems never-ending. Perhaps it would be more understandable if wine would have been entirely forbidden as it symbolizes the ease with which wine can overcome a person’s spiritual identity and turn them into a completely physical being (ibid. Rashi). At the very least it would seem more appropriate that wine be regarded with distrust and that it come with all kinds of warnings about the dangers of excessive drinking. And, yet, not only is that not the case but we seem to actually do the opposite and embrace it and rejoice with by making wine so central to so many of our ceremonies.

Paradoxically, through the extensive use of wine, the Torah teaches us a foundational lesson: everything in the physical world can be elevated to be a spiritual experience. And wine, a symbol of a person’s ability to descend to the lowest levels, is no different. Precisely due to its enormously potent power, we are commanded to utilize it for benefit in spiritual realms. This means taking wine, the epitome of the physical controlling the spiritual in a negative manner, and elevating it. We do this by turning it into something sanctified, by making a blessing over it and drinking it at the holiest moments of our year. This concept of elevating the mundane is fundamental to Judaism.Rabbi Yitzchak Friedman (1850-1917) was the first Rebbe of Boyan Chassidut and is known as the Pachad Yitzchak after his seminal work. Regarding the way a person should to fulfill the obligation to say Kiddush, the Sage Shmuel teaches, “Ein Kiddush Elah Bemakom Seudah – Kiddush must be recited only in the place where the meal is eaten.” The Pachad Yitzchak taught that Shmuel’s statement can be understood as “Ein Kiddush – i.e., the only way to attain holiness is Elah Bemakom Seudah, through eating a meal.” If one eats with the correct intent, they will attain immense holiness.

To be continued…

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