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Rebbe Mordechai of Chernobyl: Chasidic Alcohol Consumption

Rebbe Mordechai Twersky of Chernobyl was the son of Rebbe Menachem Nachum of Chernobyl. When he had to choose a surname, he chose the name Twersky, after the name of the city of Tiberias in the Land of Israel, where Rebbe Menachem Mendel of Vitebsk had settled with his chasidim. While his illustrious father lived in poverty, Rebbe Mordechai served God with great wealth. Nonetheless, he would eat very little and had practically no enjoyment from material goods. Rebbe Mordechai had 8 sons, all of whom became influential chassidic rebbes. Before his passing, Rebbe Mordechai prepared his burial place in Anatevka. He explained that there were no churches there, and hence the sound of the church bells would not disturb his rest. He passed away in Kiev on 20 Iyar, 5597 (1837) and was buried in Anatevka, Ukraine.

Rebbe Nachum of Chernobyl was an elder disciple of the Maggid of Mezritch. He had also seen the Ba’al Shem Tov and was a very close friend of the Alter Rebbe of Chabad. His son and eventual successor was Rebbe Mordechai of Chernobyl.

Once when Rebbe Mordechai was a young Torah scholar, he became ill. The expert doctors ordered him not to immerse himself in the mikveh, which they feared would be most harmful to his health. Rebbe Mordechai’s father, Rebbe Nachum, was very concerned about him. Even though immersion in a mikveh is a lofty facet of chasidic life, Rebbe Nachum would not allow his son to immerse.

Once, Rebbe Nachum heard that his son, Rebbe Mordechai had indeed immersed. He was upset and asked, “How could you do this?” Rebbe Mordechai answered that the local pharmacist, who also understands medicine, told him that he had it on good faith from the Ba’al Shem Tov that one, single immersion would not harm a person’s health.

Hearing this, Rebbe Nachum was angered. Who better than he knew what the Ba’al Shem Tov had promised regarding a single immersion? And yet, despite what the Ba’al Shem Tov had said, he, Rebbe Nachum had sided with the doctors that his son should not immerse in the mikveh at all!

So, Rebbe Nachum went to the pharmacist and asked him, “You have the presumption to tell me what the Ba’al Shem Tov said!?”

The pharmacist—a simple Jew addressing a great rebbe—answered, “With your permission, I will tell you a story. Once, many years ago [the pharmacist was also an old man] a disciple of the Ba’al Shem Tov was a guest in my home. I saw with my very own eyes that on Yom Kippur eve, he drank an entire bottle of ethanol [190 proof] at breakfast. An entire bottle! Later, at the final meal before the commencement of the fast, I saw him drink another full bottle of ethanol! I was absolutely certain that this Jew would fall on his face and sleep the entire holy day away. To my amazement, I saw that he was leading the prayers. I watched him closely and I saw that during the entire 26-hour period of Yom Kippur, he stood there with great devotion to God on that holy day.”

“After I saw that,” the pharmacist continued, “it was engraved on my heart that one can rely on this person’s rebbe, the Ba’al Shem Tov. Hence, I told your son that immersing himself one time in the mikveh will not harm him, regardless of what the doctors said.”

Rebbe Nachum was moved by the pharmacist’s answer and his sincere faith, and thank God, Rebbe Mordechai indeed regained his health.

As the pharmacist—who certainly understood the effect of alcohol on the body—saw, the Ba’al Shem Tov’s disciple displayed a revealed miracle. The Ba’al Shem Tov, and his disciples who were empowered by him, drank alcohol in a manner completely different from what we know, with imbibing and sobriety above what is naturally to be expected. Relating to this ability, the Ba’al Shem Tov once said regarding the saying of the sages, “Strong fear—wine dissipates it,”[1] that the reverse statement is also true; the strongest wine can be dissipated when the person who drank it feels the fear of God. In our generation, as well, a similar phenomenon was seen with the Lubavitcher Rebbe. After he drank large amounts of alcohol and began to show signs of it, he would pass his hand over his face and in one second all the effects of the alcohol would be gone.

A Positive Form of Intoxication

Clearly, too much alcohol is not a good idea for people of our stature. However, we too can feel slightly intoxicated every day, while still being God-fearing. The Shlah writes that the meaning of the Aramaic word “besumai,” which is usually interpreted as drunkenness, is not necessarily so. Rather, its true meaning is pleasure or sweetness that comes from slight intoxication (closer to what people today would call a “buzz”). Even on Purim, according to the Shlah, there is nothing to be gained from becoming drunk and risking missing Aravit (the evening prayers) and Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals). As proof that the obligation to become drunk on Purim is not to be taken literally, he says that nobody can really become confused between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai” (the criteria offered by the Talmud as a sign that someone has had enough to drink on Purim), no matter how much they drink. What then, is the desired form of drinking?

To answer this question, we turn to a verse in Isaiah that calls out to Jerusalem to comfort her: “Thus, hear this please, poor woman who is drunk, but not from wine.”[2] From what did Jerusalem become intoxicated? The verse is referring to the so-called “cup of poison,”[3] referring to the troubles of the exile in general and particularly, the troubles that confuse our consciousness and weaken our focus more than any beverage. Nonetheless, “the measure of positivity is always greater than the punitive measure.”[4] If suffering from hardships can mimic intoxication, all the more so that joy can mimic it. A feeling of such intoxication results from our love of God, the intoxicating love of the Song of Songs between the loving groom and bride, which is much sweeter than any wine. Service of God with pleasure is the primary goal of Purim, beginning with Mordechai who enjoys every moment of steadfast refusal to bow down before Haman and finishing with the joy and festivities in our commemorating of those events in every generation. This is the type of intoxication that can be enjoyed all year long. Moreover, the full redemption, the ge’ulah, depends on it. The Torah explicitly writes that the cause for exile is, “For you have not served Havayah your God with joy and goodness of the heart.”[5]

Carrying a Burden versus Taking Joy in the Commandments

During the exile, the primary unification [or Kabbalistic synergy] in God’s Name, Havayah, is created by the joining of the first two letters: the yud and the first hei. These two letters represent the intellectual powers, specifically wisdom and understanding. Thus, while we are in a state of exile, we find ourselves mostly living an intellectual and cerebral life, one that follows the ruling that “the mitzvot [commandments] were not given for the sake of gaining pleasure.”[6] Our constitution is that of people who feel that we are expected0 to serve God with a sincere and earnest submission to the yoke of Heaven. However, when the Temple stands tall in Jerusalem, when the love between God and Israel is revealed and the pleasure of the sacrifices is shared between them, the primary unification in God’s essential Name, Havayah, is identified as the coupling of its two final letters, vav and  hei. These two letters represent what is figuratively known as a “corporeal unification” whereby, the Divine pleasure descends and can be felt in our physical reality.

Amalek, the villain of Purim, wants the exile to continue, God forbid, and therefore strives to separate the higher (yud and hei) and lower (vav and hei) unifications from one another. He is not disturbed when mitzvoth are performed bereft of joy and pleasure, for he knows full well that there is no danger that this type of Divine service will ever draw the entire Jewish people to observe the commandments. Actually, it will do nothing to bring the rest of the world closer to Torah and to God. To transform the entire world and unify it in the service of God, we have to be able to show that the Torah and the mitzvoth are the greatest source of pleasure in the entire world. Doing so presents us with a rectified way to come to the intoxicated state of “not knowing [the difference between ‘blessed is Mordechai’ and ‘cursed is Haman.’” We derive such great pleasure from our opposition to Haman/Amalek, that we feel the need to bless him with a joyous heart for providing us with the opportunity to achieve this state. As the Arizal (Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great Kabbalist of the 16th century) taught, when drinking on Purim, we should achieve a state of “Blessed is Haman” but not, God forbid, a state of thinking that “cursed is Mordechai.” It is with this joy that the entire world will be transformed to good.

[1]. Bava Batra 10a.

[2]. Isaiah 51:21.

[3]. Ibid v. 17.

[4]. Avot DeRabbi Nathan 30.

[5]. Deuteronomy 28:47.

[6]. Rosh Hashanah 28a.

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