But look at the sidra, where a different picture appears to be offered. The Nazirite, who desires to be “holy unto the Lord”, deliberately denies himself wine as well as other pleasures of the world. He seeks spiritual heights, and one of the first things to go is wine.
If we ask how his abstinence helps him towards spirituality, all we need to do is to recall what the Midrash says, that before a person drinks, he is tame like a lamb; when he begins to drink, he is strong like a lion; when he drinks too much, he behaves like a pig; and when he is inebriated he is like an ape and acts like a fool (what a poor opinion the Midrash had of apes and monkeys!).
Too much wine therefore compromises a person’s human dignity; as another rabbinic source puts it, nichnas yayin yatza sod – “when wine comes in, discretion goes” (Eruvin 65a). And another source says, “Where there’s wine there’s immorality” (Num. Rabba 10:3).
But the Nazirite is not the Jewish role model. His self-denial is not for everyone. And when he completes his Nazirite period he brings a sin-offering. He may have needed a time of self-mastery, but he has to come back to the normal world. In that world wine has its uses, and our tradition regards it with generous appreciation.
“Wine,” says the Psalmist, “gladdens the heart of man” (Psalm 104). It enhances the feeling of well-being on happy life-cycle occasions and other pleasant events. Drinking it requires a blessing recognising that the Almighty “creates the fruit of the vine”.
Whether wine is itself a blessing or a curse depends on one’s sense of moderation. Indeed moderation is essential in relation to all human dispositions. Maimonides warns in his Eight Chapters on Ethics against going to any extreme in one’s traits and habits; too much arrogance or too much humility is a problem, as is too much meanness or too much profligacy. Health, physical, psychological or spiritual, requires equilibrium.
Samson Raphael Hirsch gives wine a messianic interpretation. In Jacob’s final message to his sons, there is a verse that says about Judah, “He has washed his garment in wine, and his mantle in the blood of grapes” (Gen. 49:11).
Hirsch says that the difference between the Mashi’ach and a pagan king is that “his clothes are stained red, but not with the blood of man, with the ‘blood’ of grapes… Thus (we see) the return of paradise on earth, the whole of nature rejuvenated as it was at the beginning, the subjugators and slayers of men no longer regarded as heroes, no drop of blood on the garments of its great men”.