In this week’s Parsha we learn about the tragic loss of Nadav and Avihu, two amazing sons with incredible potential. The Midrash and Meforshim connect their mistake with the Mitzvah given to Aaron afterward, of not abusing wine or serving in the Mikdash intoxicated. Given the topic, I felt it apropos to discuss the Torah’s approach to substance abuse.

Let’s first mention all the times in the Chumash alcohol is mentioned:

  1. The fruit that Adom at from the Etz HaDaas (according to one opinion).
  2. Noah’s intoxication which resulted in the episode with Cham, causing all his descendants to be cursed.
  3. Lot was intoxicated by his daughters, resulting in the nations Amon and Moav (mamzerim both).
  4. The deaths of Nadav and Avihu.
  5. The Mitzvah of Kohanim and Leviim not serving in the Mikdash intoxicated.
  6. The special status of the Nazir who abstains from wine.

It would appear strictly from the Chumash that the Torah does not see Alcohol and intoxication in a favorable light.

Later in Nach, we find various pesukim discussing the dangers and the positive attributes of Alcohol.

Chazal likewise gave alcohol special significance in certain specific mitzvos, such as Kiddush, Dalet Kosos at the seder, Bikas HaMazon, Purim, Simcha on Yom Tov, and others. What’s apparent is that Chazal use alcohol and intoxication in specific ways and under specific contexts. In almost all cases, alcohol is not referred to directly. Instead we say “Kos Brocha” or the like, always referring to the vessel holding it. This in itself tells us something (the difference between drinking form a cup compared to the type of circumstances and company one drinks directly from a bottle) as well as amount. Purim, in which Chazal seem more concerned with the feeling of intoxication, is a major machlokes amongst poskim regarding how what Chazal meant and how to fulfill the Mitzvah of Ad Delo Yada (however even the side that interprets the Mitzvah to become very intoxicated agrees that it is absolutely assur to become so intoxicated that a person becomes inappropriate or does inappropriate behavior, and certainly don’t allow for missing minyanim and benching because of over intoxication and an inability to daven properly).

The Midrash in this week’s parsha says that one who drinks wine to the point that his face becomes “red” will end up having assur relations, make bad judgements and decisions that affect himself and others, and end up having to sell his what he owns to feed his habit. The Midrash also notes that of all the 7 Minim, all have a one or 2 names, while “Gefen has many (Gefen, Anavim, Chamar, Yayin) explaining that just as win is a slow process of squeezing the good out of a fruit and turning it into something else, likewise drinking causes a person to “squeeze out” what is good in them and “vomit it out”. It also delineates how wine throughout history has caused major divisions between people, giving many examples in Tanach. Likewise, Shlomos intoxication almost cause the destruction of Yerushalayim and the Bei HaMikdash on the first day of its inauguration. It continues on with 2 stories of how wine ruined a person’s family and his life, finally ending off:

 רַבִּי חֲנִּינָּא בַר פָּפָּא אָּמַר, אָּמַר הַקָּדוֹש בָּרוּךְ הוּא בַיִּת גָּדוֹל הָּיָּה לִּי וְלאֹ הֶחֱרַבְתִּיו אֶלָּא מִּפְנֵי הַיָּיִּן, וְרַבָּנָּן אָּמְרֵי שְנֵי רוֹזְנִּים הָּיוּ לִּי וְלאֹ מֵתוּ אֶלָּא מִּפְנֵי הַיָּיִּן, דְתָּנֵי רַבִּי יִּשְמָּעֵאל לאֹ מֵתוּ שְנֵי בָּנָּיו שֶל אַהֲרֹן אֶלָּא מִּפְ נֵי שֶנִּכְנְסוּ שְתוּיֵי יַיִּן וכו’, אָּמַר הקָּדוֹש בָּרוּךְ הוּא לְפִּי שֶבָּעוֹלָּם הַזֶה הַיַיִּן תַקָּלָּה לָּעוֹלָּם, לֶעָּתִּיד לָּבוֹא אֲנִּי עוֹשֵהוּ שִּמְחָּהָּ

Alcohol can have terrible effects on one’s neshama, but in moderation can be used as a tool. A kos shel bracha raises the chashivus of a Mitzvah, and alcohol can loosen us up a little to enjoy the chag as its meant to be. It can break down internal barriers and inhibitions that stop us from embracing avodas Hashem completely (sometimes because of embarrassment, or other feelings in the way like anxiety, depression etc.), and can bring out the real person (“nichnas yayin yatza sod”). Certainly however, at a very young age when a person is still developing who they are internally and are often empty inside because they haven’t had the chance to accomplish in life yet, becoming intoxicated can be a very dangerous thing. Often, because teens feel empty or unsure on the inside, they use alcohol in a superficial way or in ways unintended by Chazal, similar to Nadav and Avihu. Again, even when Chazal utilize alcohol, it is under specific and controlled criteria and usually for a singular purpose.

Regarding other forms of substance abuse such as drugs, the Torah and Chazal are interestingly silent, especially given how in so many other religions substances were and are used by “mystics”, “prophets”, “priests” etc. in ceremonies and to perform “spiritual acts”. Many modern day poskim therefore when discussing substance abuse bring up Kibud Av VaEm and health issues as the Halachik basis for their issur. We could explain that The Torah just covers all types of substance abuse under alcohol, which it does discuss, as is often the way of the Torah.

A Rav once explained to me the idea that the Torah never directly references Olam HaBah. We often explain how Olam HaBah is the goal of existence, so the question is why would the “final picture” be left out of an instruction manual save for a few vague references? He went on to say that it is because the Torah, while leading to Olam HaBah, is a guide for Olam HaZeh, and addresses specifically and practically issues pertaining to living in Olam HaZeh. I would apply this logic to substance abuse as well.

The Torah develops a person truest qualities to the fullest. It brings out their real self and actualizes them to the fullest. While many claim that “getting high” helps them “see and think clearer” and “get in touch with reality”, it is actually all very superficial and damaging. Those who use are often disconnected with themselves, their surroundings, and in their relationships, and are so disconnected with themselves that they don’t realize it, actually saying that they are more connected! Substance abuse, even when “recreational”, always has an element of self-medication (the term itself implies superficiality). To those who say their just using a little every now and then to have fun, I always ask “Why do you need a crutch or an outside catalyst to have fun/feel good, and what steps are you taking in your life to ensure that eventually those feelings will be internal rather than externally stimulated. What does it say about you that you need help being/getting happy?”. Therefore, the Torah, which deals with the real person and the ways to develop the inner self in the truest sense, does not deal with substances that were used during the time of the Torah to invoke superficial spiritual experiences.

Alcohol then, may be the one exception (the Torah often deal with practical exceptions leaving the normal expectations and situations to be extrapolated) in that it can, under the right circumstances, be used as a tool to develop the inner self. When used incorrectly however, it can be turned just as much superficial. Even more scary, given its capacity to touch the true self, if done improperly but succeeding in arousing the internal, a person could even damage himself, as perhaps was the case with Nadav and Avihu. It is important to discuss these ideas with teens, more than just the dangers of substance abuse, what does such behavior say about who you are and where your headed? More than just “street behavior” and reputation, what’s wrong inside that your trying to fix? Why can’t you have fun and be happy without it? What are you doing then to teach yourself how to be happy/have fun internally without it? Most will probably have a hard time seeing it in themselves, but often can see it in a few of their friends, at least planting the right ideas and attitudes about substance abuse.