To Life – L’Hayim!


by Rabbi Wendy Spears

I went wine tasting last night and tried 9 different Argentinian wines. Mostly made from Malbec and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes, they are a rich dark reddish purple in color, with a fruity nose, and heavy feel on the tongue. They would pair well with steak or a robust tomato sauce with oregano and garlic. I didn’t like them much, but I’m not a fan of heavy wines. It was an interesting, educational experience. My preference is for fruity, light wines, white or red, like Pinot Grigio, Gewurtztraminer, Sauvignon Blanc, Riesling, Pinot Noir, and Sangiovese. I also really love late harvest dessert wines.

I wasn’t always a wine drinker. I used to say I didn’t like wine. Now I know it’s that I don’t like bad wine. But wine wasn’t a significant part of my life until I went to rabbinical school and started celebrating home Shabbat dinners with my classmates. I don’t remember my parents drinking wine while I was growing up, although there was always wine on Friday nights at the synagogue which we attended. My maternal grandparents served wine during the annual Passover seder, where my brother walked around the table after the adults left it and drank the dregs in all the cups.

I wasn’t really all that surprised that my brother eventually became an alcoholic. He had the example of our grandfather and great-aunt, who were the quintessential lives-of-the-party at every big family gathering. I remember that at my cousin’s bar mitzvah, my grandfather got roaring drunk, stripped down to his underwear, and rode a tricycle around the dance floor. I was very embarrassed, to say the least. My grandfather was a functional alcoholic, meaning that he was able to go to work every day. He had a couple of drinks when he got home from work. He got into several traffic accidents when he drove drunk. Since my grandmother didn’t drive, this was a danger to her as well. I always wondered about that, although no one in the family ever addressed the drinking. Maybe it was because he was so happy and gregarious when he was drunk.

While I was in college, I attended Al-Anon meetings from time to time, to deal with my anger over my brother’s alcoholism. I learned there that you cannot control another person, you can only control yourself. As someone who was called to help people, I found this a very difficult lesson to learn. Working the 12 Steps helped me move through my anger at my family members’ behavior, to understand them a bit better, to have compassion, and hold on to the love I experienced with them. This was very much like preparing for tshuva, the process of reflection and forgiveness that Jews do in preparation for the High Holy Days of Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur. It doesn’t mean I thought the alcoholism was okay, but that I was able to step back and observe rather than getting caught up in the drama and trauma of their behavior. I don’t feel the pull of the alcohol in the same way they do, so I can drink a glass of wine and be finished there. And as one of the characters who was an alcoholic on the t.v. show The West Wing once said, “I don’t understand how anyone can drink and not want to get drunk.” The barrier of perception is very real.

In Judaism, on certain holidays and on Shabbat, Jews observe the mitzvah (a Jewish way of doing and being) of drinking wine. Folks who are susceptible to addiction could see this as permission to get drunk, and often do. Traditionally, wine is viewed as a blessing created in partnership with God as an artful act; God brings the sun, rain, and soil, while we humans plant and tend the grapes, harvest them, and artfully make the juice into wine. We learn also that it is a Jewish way to walk the mindful middle path, to be enlivened by our food and drink, by the physical, but not to lose ourselves on the path by abusing these life-giving substances. This can be a difficult dance to learn, a confusing path to navigate. The learning, though, is made easier by the love and support of family, friends, and community. That kind of love and support helped me when I needed it.

Passover arrives on the evening of March 25 this year. I will serve wine at my table, where many of my family and friends will drink four cups of it. It will be wine that my husband and I find delicious. There will also be a variety of grape juices on my table, to bring joy to my family and friends who don’t drink alcohol. We will toast each other by saying, “L’Hayim – To Life!” It will be a lively feast, with good food and good conversation. I hope everyone enjoys and enlivens one another.

Rabbi Wendy Spears is a community rabbi in Los Angeles. Find her at


One thought on “To Life – L’Hayim!

  1. Lovely and important contribution Wendy. Thank you for bringing the light of awareness to this issue. I especially appreciate what you said about perception and how you cultivated compassion towards your family beautiful

    Sent from my iPhone

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