In Parshat Naso we have the description of the mitzvah of the Nazir. Nazir is a specific vow, whereby if someone declares himself to be a Nazir, he (or she) is forbidden to drink wine or consume any grapes or grape products, and is forbidden to come in contact with the dead. It would seem that this Mitzva is out of place, and should have been brought with the other vows, which are in Parshat Matot, later on in Bamidbar. Rashi asks: “Why is the section on the Nazir brought immediately after the section of the Sotah?” Sotah is where a man suspects his wife of infidelity, and warns her not to seclude herself with a certain man. If she anyway goes and secludes herself with him, the husband can then take her to the Beis Hamikdash and have her drink the special water, which will determine her innocent or guilt. So what is the connection between Nazir and Sotah? Rashi answers: “To tell you that anyone who sees a Sotah in her downfall should take a Nazir vow so as not to drink wine, because wine can lead to licentiousness.
This raises the question: if wine leads to licentiousness, why is it permitted to drink at all? Nevertheless, we see that not only is wine permitted, but it has a special elevated status. The sages thought very highly of it, and even gave wine its own unique blessing, “Borei Pri Hagafen” “Who creates the fruit of the vine”. A blessing over a cup of wine is recited at Kiddush and Havdalla for Shabbat and Yom Tov, and at important occasions, like at a wedding Chuppa and a Brit. How can it be that something so important can also be a source of downfall and destruction?
The sages discuss this dichotomy of the effects of drinking wine. Rav Kahana comments on one of the words for wine: Tirosh If the word in pronounced “Tirosh” it can mean “You will be a ‘head’”. If it is pronounced “Tirash” it can mean “You will be a poor beggar.” So Rav Kahana says’ “if he merits he will become a head (i.e. wise), if he does not merit he will become a poor beggar.” Rava has a similar exegesis on the verse “Wine gladdens a man’s heart.” (Psalms 104, 15) “If he merits the drinking will make him happy, if he doesn’t merit it will lay him waste.” (Sanhedrin 70a) By the term “merit” the sages are referring to him earning his merit by his actions. Someone who drinks properly and doesn’t overdo it will benefit from the wine. It will open his heart and enable him to understand on a deeper level. It will give him a joyous heart and a good humor. But if he thinks that by drinking more he will get even more benefit from it, he is mistaken. Excess drinking will ruin him. It will cause him to sin, will destroy his health, and ruin him.
Rav Channan said, “Wine was only created to comfort mourners and to give reward to the wicked.” (Sanhedrin 70a) According to this view, wine should not have been created for this world. It is so lofty and exalted that it is truly G-dly and fitting for the pleasures of the next world. Nevertheless, wine in this world is extracted from the innermost secrets of the grape and has its own spirituality. So according to Rav Channan wine is here in this world comfort mourners and restores the soul to those who have lost a dear one in this world. (Maharal) The other purpose that Rav Channan says, “to give reward to the wicked” means that by indulging in this pleasure of wine, the wicked are given their reward in this world for the few Mitzvoth and good deeds that they have performed in this world. In this way they are given their reward here and now, and they will have no reward in the next world. A way to understand this is that these wicked lushes want their pleasure in their drink here and now. They want immediate gratification, and they don’t want to moderate their drinking either. They want the maximum pleasure right now, even though they know that they will have a hangover in the morning. There is a principle that G-d metes out reward and punishment measure for measure. Because this drinker wants his pleasure here and now, then G-d will give him that pleasure here and now in this world, and not in the next.
So we see that wine has many benefits, and brings health and pleasure, which can open the heart to wisdom. But if someone thinks that if a little wine is good, then a lot will be even better, he will find out that he is quite mistaken, and it will be a cause for his downfall.