The Ma Nishtana highlights the unique practices of the Seder Night. It is the only night of the year when we eat only matza, bitter herbs, recline, and double-dip. However, the Ma Nishtana makes no mention of the unique practice of drinking four cups of wine. Why didn’t this question make it to the song? I further wonder how it would have been formulated – on this night we drink four cups of wine, but on all other nights we drink _?_ cups. What is our communal norm?
Fortunately, the Jewish community is now confronting the dangerous prevalence of alcoholism and addiction. We hope that increased education and decreased stigmatization will lead us towards solutions. There is no doubt that the social and (perceived) halachic acceptability of alcohol consumption has created an environment that allows this problem to grow and I think that we should take some time, especially around Pesach, to reexamine our communal relationship with alcohol.
The Torah (Devarim 21) introduces the law of the gluttonous child, who is so morally corrupt that he is to be put to death at an early age. The Talmud (Sanhedrin 71) asserts that this law “never happened and never will happen”. This is a uniquely theoretical concept that is meant merely to teach a lesson about excess indulgences and drunkenness. It was written in the Torah solely to “study, and become enriched”. Rav Moshe Feinstein zt”l put this into practice when he cited this law in his 1973 responsum, as part of his basis to prohibit marijuana use. Rabbi Herschel Schachter reaffirmed this position in his responsum this year, responding to the legalization of marijuana in some states. Both emphasized the Jewish values of moderation in physical indulgence and the importance of sobriety and mental focus in leading meaningful lives.
Similarly, Nachmonides (Vayikra 19:2) emphasized this value when he defined the mitzvah of Kedoshim Teheyu, “Be Holy” as moderation in our engagement with physical indulgence and the consumption of wine. He pointed to the Nazir who vows not to drink wine and is called “holy” by the Torah (Bamidbar 6:5). Ramban asserts that we must be aware of the limitations of our legalistic framework of halacha that cannot possibly proscribe every negative behavior. We must internalize the overarching values of the Torah and guide our lives by those values; it is not enough to simply follow the letter of the specific commands. Otherwise, he warned, we would become “gluttonous within the law”.
We have learned through history that Prohibition, legislation, and the waging of a War on Drugs has had little effect. Similarly, the Torah did not legislate an outright ban but instructed us to become holy. The restriction of the Nazir is praised, but is not legislated. Our responsibility is to teach our children, and ourselves, the value of moderation and restraint, and to forge our paths towards holiness. It is critical to avoid the dangers of addiction. Moreover, a healthy, moderate, and refined relationship with intoxicants is critical in shaping elevated lives of kedusha.
Many halachic leaders have strongly endorsed grape juice as a completely valid form of fulfilling the mitzvah of the four cups on Pesach and Kiddush on Shabbat. This position has paved the way for our community to forge a healthier relationship with alcohol. It is now our responsibility to incorporate the value of moderation in our homes, shuls and communities. Perhaps this question was omitted from the Ma Nishtana because we were not quite sure how to honestly formulate it, but perhaps it is the most important question that we can ask of ourselves.