Lessons you can learn from an alcoholic
Imagine if, just for a few moments, you can see yourself as others do. Would that be a life changing experience? Or are we so stuck in our ways that witnessing a new perspective on life would not make any difference?
The backdrop to this question is the two sons of Aaron who perished because they offered a sacrifice while intoxicated. The Midrash dwells on the perils of getting intoxicated. Noach’s drunkenness ended in humiliation for him and his cursing the descendants of his son, Cham. Midrash Tanchuma added a startling fact about the exile of the ten tribes. It seems their preoccupation with intoxication contributed to their spiritual and military downfall and their ultimate exile
A son’s gallant attempt to rehabilitate his father
The Midrash brings a story of an old man who was hopelessly addicted to alcohol. Every day his righteous son was humiliated upon seeing his father making a fool of himself in a public marketplace. People ridiculed his father and threw objects at him. Every day he pleaded with his father to stop drinking in public. He even offered his father to bring all the alcohol he wanted to his father’s house so he would not have to go out in public. Finally his father agreed to this and got drunk at home.
One day the son was walking through the market and he saw another drunkard undergoing the same humiliation as his father experienced. He thought to himself that this could be a powerful lesson for his father – a teachable moment. For the first time his father could observe how society perceives a drunkard. Surely this would shake him up and trigger a process of recovery. He brought his father to the marketplace and explained to him that this pathetic drunkard was treated exactly the way he was treated. His father approached the drunkard, crouched beside him and said “that looks like some powerful stuff you’re drinking, where can I get some?” When the son expressed his dismay, his father explained:
בְּנִי, בְּחַיַּי אֵין לִי תַּעֲנוּג וְגַן עֵדֶן אֶלָּא זֶה.
“My son, I have no other joy in life except this – It’s my ‘Garden of Eden” (Midrash Tanchuma Shemini, 11:1)
Spiritual joy vs. artificial joy
The Midrash says that learning Torah and doing Mitzvot brings on a long lasting joy that can feel like Gan Eden. On the other hand, the artificial high brought on by alcohol not only wears off quickly, it’s replaced with sadness.
Perhaps this Midrash is an implied criticism of the sons of Aaron. Instead of tapping into the joy of following God’s instructions and participating in the great inauguration of the Mishkan, they felt the need to supplement the ultimate spiritual joy with an artificial path to joy. An offering that was not called for.
Being open to change
The famous dictum in Pirkei Avot says בֶּן זוֹמָא אוֹמֵר, אֵיזֶהוּ חָכָם, הַלּוֹמֵד מִכָּל אָדָם, “Ben Zoma says: Who is the wise person, the one that learns from everyone.” (Avot 4:1) Perhaps we can all learn from the drunkard and acknowledge our own addiction to certain negative behaviors. If we were afforded the rare opportunity to see ourselves through some kind of objective lens, how would we react? Would we cast off these behaviors or cling to them like the drunkard?
It is rare to encounter a scenario that perfectly mirrors our negative behaviors. Then again, my friend Rabbi Yaakov Hammer, signs every email with this quote from the Baal Shem Tov: “Every single thing that a person sees or hears, is an instruction to him in his conduct in the service of God.” Of course, getting the message is only half the battle. To bring about positive change in ourselves we then need to absorb messages with honest self reflection and be open to spiritual guidance.