Most people have some (or a lot of!) interesting episodes that took place during their formative years and upon which they look back nostalgically and with a chuckle. Growing up, I had my own share of offbeat or otherwise fascinating experiences. One seemingly insignificant chapter of my youth turned out, years later, to illustrate the amazing way in which every last aspect of our lives is bashert, intimately orchestrated by Hashem Himself.
I never knew my maternal grandmother, who passed away at a young age. By the time I was born, my grandfather had remarried, and we grew up with a step-grandmother, whom we referred to as our “aunt.” When we were young, she loved to sing to us. She sang songs in a broken English that brought smiles to our faces, but she especially loved singing old Yiddish songs, presumably the very ones with which she herself grew up.
Some of the songs she sang are somewhat well known – such as Oyf’n Pripetchik – while others we never heard elsewhere. As we got older, we’d chuckle at the memory of these songs, songs we looked upon as our private family “specials.”
One of these songs was a short ditty: “Oy, yoy, yoy. Shikkur iz a goy. Shikkur iz ehr, trinken miz ehr, veil ehr iz a goy. Shikkur iz ehr, trinken miz ehr, veil ehr iz a goy.”
This was just a song she sang, with lyrics to which any European Jew – frum, non-frum, learned or illiterate – could relate. We grew up with this jingle, never thinking about it too deeply.
Fast-forward a number of years. I was in my low twenties, learning in Yeshivas Mir Yerushalayim. In Yerushalayim, Purim is celebrated on the 15th of Adar, Shushan Purim. One year, I was invited, along with a friend, to Kiryat Sefer to join the Purim festivities on the 14th of Adar, which is when they celebrate it over there. A choshuve yungerman we knew was hosting a Purim seudah for a special kollel of Russian yungeleit of which he was one of the main organizers. He felt that we would enjoy ourselves – chapping arein an “extra” Purim – while simultaneously adding to the general joy of the event.
We gladly accepted the invitation.
Upon our arrival at the Purim seudah, we found the yungeleit in high spirits (literally!) and quickly joined the excitement. As I got my bearings, I noticed one older fellow, sitting off to the side, who seemed a bit out of sorts. While the kollel was made up of serious bnei Torah – albeit of Russian origin – one of them had invited his father to join, hoping that he, too, would be uplifted by the joy-filled atmosphere.
The father, however, was clearly feeling somewhat out of place. Being musically gifted, he had brought a guitar with him, figuring that he’d play and thus be a true part of the revelry. It turned out, though, that this man’s repertoire of “Jewish” songs, did not exactly include any of the major Purim songs with which we are all familiar, such as LaYehudim, Venahapoch Hu or Mishenichnas Adar. He sat there trying to sing and play what he clearly thought were “Jewish” songs, only to have each one peter out, as none of the younger generation knew anything of what he was playing.
One could not help having his heart contract in pity at the sight of this poor fellow, who obviously had so wanted to not only join but be a part of the party, guitar and all. There he sat, forlorn, trying one song after another, only to be greeted with awkward silence or half-hearted attempts at joining by a crowd to whom everything he played was quite foreign.
Though I felt sorry for him, too, there was nothing much I could do more than anyone else to alleviate the uncomfortable situation.
Then I heard him strumming something that rang rusty bells in my memory. He was playing something I felt I somehow knew. How would I know anything in this elderly Russian’s repertoire? Then he began singing along to his playing, and suddenly I was singing right with him! “Oy, yoy, yoy. Shikkur iz a goy. Shikkur iz ehr, trinken miz ehr, veil ehr iz a goy. Shikkur iz ehr, trinken miz ehr, veil ehr iz a goy.”
The man’s face lit up in wonder, seeing that some youngster actually knew this song, and knew it well! For my part – perhaps for old-times’ sake, for the kick of it, because of the Purim spirit, or a mixture of them all – I sang along with extreme gusto. There we were, he and I, the old Russian Yid and the American bachur, singing away like old friends while the rest of the kollel looked on open-mouthed.
The joy on the man’s face was priceless. Seeing that he had finally “hit the jackpot,” he played and sang for all he was worth, to my spirited accompaniment. We sang and danced for a while, and when we were finally done, he sat back with a huge smile, finally allowing himself to lay his guitar aside. He accepted a “blincheh” from one of the yungeleit and joined the seudah with a contented smile.
I recall clearly, and with amusement, the priceless look of shock and wonder on the face of my friend as I sat down beside him for some refreshments of my own. “How on earth did you know that?” he asked.
I just smiled nonchalantly and asked him why he thought I wouldn’t know such a sweet little ditty.
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All this comes to mind when contemplating the place that wine and spirits play in the life of a Jew. Our highest moments, such as at a wedding, a bris and a Kiddush on Shabbosos and Yomim Tovim, are celebrated with wine. When a couple becomes engaged, we “seal” it with a “lechayim.” “Veyayin yesamach levav enosh – And wine gladdens the heart of man” (Tehillim 104:15).
When used right, a bit of spirits can put things in the right spirit.
Like many things, though, when taken to an extreme, wine – or any sort of alcoholic beverage – not only has no positive value, but becomes nothing less than repugnant. As our little jingle so succinctly illustrates, while “drinking to something” may be wonderful, there is nothing lower or more revolting than “being a drunk.”
This was the basic awareness not only of those well-versed in Jewish thought, but every last Jewish child of yore. There were the Russian shikkurim, the Polish shikkurim, the shikkurim who were the dregs of virtually every society in which we lived throughout the ages. A Yid, though, was better than that. We may drink a lechayim, but we never become drunk. There is no place at all in Jewish society for such repulsive behavior.
If one looks at the seforim that speak of the chiyuv to drink on Purim, they are replete with wonder at how there can be such an injunction to become inebriated even just once in a year. Clearly, aside from Purim, there is no place in Jewish society for any sort of such behavior.
The fact that there is even a need for anyone to point out how out of sync with Jewish living it is to allow one’s consumption to control him, rather than the other way around, is a sad commentary on how desperately we need the geulah to bring us back to a life of true value and meaning. By allowing the unfettered redifas hata’anugim, the wholesale embrace of crass materialism that epitomizes the vacuous society in which we live, to penetrate our own mindset, we risk losing a major aspect of our very identity.
Rav Shimon Schwab zt”l famously said that there is no such thing as a frum Jew who steals. Anyone who steals, he explained, simply cannot be considered a frum Jew. Similarly, while Yidden do celebrate significant moments with a lechayim, an individual who allows a casual toast to metastasize to where his brains are toasted is not a frum individual. By the same token, any shul, chevrah or society where such behavior takes place is not a gathering of frum people, regardless of how much any of those individuals might give to tzedakah or spend on an esrog.
Let us reiterate that we are in no way disparaging the enjoyment of a savory lechayim. Nor is the crux of this article aimed at the follies of inebriation. That is self-understood to anyone blessed with a human mind. Our discussion focuses on how, often fueled by glitzy ads and peer pressure, the uncontrolled embrace of worldly pleasures – even if seemingly innocuous – can quickly lead one down a slippery slope towards behaviors we ourselves would never have contemplated or envisioned.
The Torah teaches a Jew how to control his environment. We partake of worldly pleasures. We never become obsessed with them or allow our lives to be dictated by them.
There is little need to quote chapter or verse with regard to the pitfalls or the un-Jewish nature of becoming plastered by alcoholic plasma. The Torah and the Talmud are replete with such teachings. However, what might give us pause are the words of the Sefer Orchos Tzaddikim (Shaar Hasimcha), wherein he quotes the Rambam,who chastises not he who gets smashed, but we who fail to feel the proper degree of disgust towards such behavior.
“Kosav Rabbeinu Moshe HaMaimoni, the Rambam writes,” quotes the Orchos Tzaddikim, “hakibbutz al hashtiyah hameshakeres, the gathering and camaraderie (a.k.a. Kiddush Club?) centered on alcoholic drink, should be inyour eyesfar more repulsive than a gathering of degenerates for immoral purposes.”
Think about that. What do we look upon as worse? A shul without a mechitzah or a home or hall where there is an atmosphere of shikrus at gatherings? The latter, we would say, is no good. The former, though, we would say is unconscionable.
Yet the Rambam chastises us for looking at it this way. The latter, he tells us, is far more repugnant not only than a gathering with no mechitzah, but than an actual gathering of immorality.
The Rambam further explains that one who sins in even the worst manner at least knows what he is doing and that he is sinning. He is a human being who is coming up quite short. By contrast, one who allows his drink to get the better of him loses the one thing that distinguishes him as a human being: his mind. Without a functioning mind, he is no better than an animal. As opposed to a human being with shortcomings, minus one’s mind one can more aptly be compared to a horse.
These words of the Rambam should give us pause.
Perhaps it would be most appropriate to conclude with what the Chofetz Chaim zt”l tells us is the way to reach true joy and excitement, rather than an artificial high.
In Kol Kisvei Chofetz Chaim (Dugma Midarkei Avi zt”l, 29), the Chofetz Chaim’s son tells of how his father taught that there is no place for emphasis on drinking – and surely not on actually becoming inebriated – during Simchas Torah. “On Purim,” the Chofetz Chaim explained, “the verse speaks of mishteh vesimcha, thus alluding to a joy attained with the help of drink.” Simchas Torah, however, is, by definition, a simcha of Torah and should thus be attained solely by a focus on the joys of Torah! “Pikudei Hashem yeshorim meshamchei lev” (Tehillim 19:9), quotes the Chofetz Chaim. It is living as a Torah Jew that truly gladdens the heart. Bringing oneself to joy through any other form is missing the entire point.
This is a lesson not only for Simchas Torah,but for a Jew throughout the year. One who cannot reach the pinnacle of excitement and joy simply by contemplating the wondrousness of living a Torah life; by seeking fulfillment in doing what is right, by feeling the geshmak of learning a Tosafos or a line of Chumash with Rashi, by reaching the tranquility that comes from davening or reciting Tehillim, by knowing that the chein and personal appeal that surround in a wondrous aura he or she who lives a simple but true Torah life is beautiful beyond comparison, has never tasted true joy in their lives.
Happiness comes not to he who imbibes of spirits, but rather to he who has the true spirit!