We know that people find making choices to be stressful, even when those choices are between attractive options: which candy in all of the candy store do you want? Adding options invariably makes things worse and not better. Decisions stress people out. Want to freak out a college student? Suggest they write an essay on any topic they like.
People want to be handed one or two options on a platter; having too many choices is bewildering and daunting. I think in some part this is why most people do not really want to be #1 in most organizations. In corporations generally, the “glass ceiling” is often the line above which many people are not happy venturing. There are very few people who want both to have a wide range of choices and be held responsible for the choices that they make.
The irony, of course, is that every single human being ultimately has this challenge, no matter how much we may want to avoid it. The options are dizzying, if we but allow ourselves to think of them. And we are all held responsible, sooner or later, either by other people, by our Creator or – most frighteningly of all – by ourselves.
The way we deal with this problem is that we make life choices to avoid decision-making. We self-limit. We find ways to restrict and close our social circles. Most people seek “plug and chug” work instead of “blue sky” kinds of endeavors. We find ways to claim that we really had no choices along the way; we are merely leaves swept along in the current created by our parents or peers or schools.
In other words, mankind has an almost-instinctive desire to reduce our responsibility. It is all part of risk reduction. As we have seen with the Covid crisis, people would rather suffer in the name of reducing risk than actually getting on with life. As with most things, mindset becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If we see ourselves as responsible and decisive actors, then we can achieve that. If, on the other hand, we believe in fate, wherein we are hapless victims of our circumstances, then that is what we become.
One of the unpleasant aspects of decisions, of course, is that a single bad one can destroy a lifetime of good judgement. It only takes one Chappaquiddick to cripple a career or end a life. Or one collision by a drunk driver.
One of the key imprints of the Torah is the notion of individual free will and responsibility, and the parallel rejection of fate and destiny. And I noticed that this theme is found not only in the Garden of Eden and Cain and Abel (where the stakes were high, but the players made informed choices), but it is also found when dealing with the subject of diminished capacity.
As Paracelsus put it: “All things are poisons, for there is nothing without poisonous qualities. It is only the dose which makes a thing poison.” It is tautological that too much of anything is bad – that is what “too much” means. On the other hand, everything can be beneficial if both the application and the dose are good. This world presents us with a myriad of choices, but one of the most perilous choices is found in alcohol.
The primary moral danger of alcohol, poisonous though it is in sufficient quantity, is not the physical impairment or the liver damage. The problem with alcohol is its primary application: diminishing our capacity to make good choices. As we have said above, people crave ways to avoid responsibility, and alcohol offers a handy solution: we can take it so that we have an excuse as and when we do something stupid. Not that we meant to end up doing something stupid when we started drinking – perish the thought!
Alcohol lends even our excuses the extra excuse of diminished capacity. This may not be alcohol’s sole advantage, but it certainly is a key unconscious allure. Alcohol allows our choices to take on the passive voice: I don’t even remember the sequence of events that led up to that car crash or the surprise pregnancy. But I did not seek those outcomes, and I am surely not responsible for them! I was just unwinding with my friends, and might have had a few too many…
Alcohol, like our parents and the circumstances of our birth and upbringing, becomes an excuse through which we stop being responsible for choices we should be making.
The Torah gives us two primary examples: Noah and Lot.
Noah spends his life building an ark, and he saves life on the earth to begin rebuilding. But after getting through all of that, he suffers from some kind of survivor’s guilt: he grows a vineyard and makes himself as drunk as he can. The text says he “debased” himself, using a word that elsewhere suggests a raw, as-created, animalistic state (the opposite of holiness). Noah chose to reject his own responsibility for his own actions, to act instinctively and not thoughtfully.
If anything, this is using alcohol as a post-facto ablution: drown all the guilt and doubts and grief in wine. The result is disastrous; he engages in incestuous sex with his son, and his reputation is ruined. Reverting to animalism is not a winner in the Torah’s eyes.
Lot similarly escapes from Sodom, with his two daughters. His daughters believed that the entire world had been destroyed, and they were somehow the only survivors, responsible for repopulating the world. They get their father drunk, and then got themselves impregnated by him. Lot, while a victim (he did not bed his daughters while sober), clearly was not blameless. He let them get him drunk, after all. The children of Lot’s incestuous affair are cursed because of the circumstances that brought them into the world.
For both Noah and Lot, cases, alcohol lends diminished capacity, reversion to animalistic lusts, and single events that eternally tarnish their reputations. The alcohol is the gateway, the means through which people can follow their need to cut loose and plausibly deny whatever happens next. Alcohol behind the wheel turns murder into manslaughter, though if the outcomes are just a bit altered, such an event might even be described as mere youthful indiscretion.
The Torah’s lesson is blindingly obvious: mankind may want to avoid making decisions. But G-d is not having it: our lives are ultimately judged by our decisions, including those that enable more disastrous outcomes. As we know from the expulsion from the Garden (which happened not necessarily because Adam and Eve ate the fruit, but because they each denied personal responsibility), G-d gives us choices. We must not only make the choices, but we must also not shirk from owning those choices and the consequences that stem from them. Anything we do to reduce our capacity and agency invariably will do more harm than good.
In other words, man must act against our natural impulses, the desire to revert to animalism and to blame that reversion on something – anything – other than ourselves. We might be daunted by the prospect of choices, decisions, and consequences. Nevertheless, the Torah tells us, we are charged with overcoming our natural fears, eschewing avoidance or excuses, and rise to handle the challenges offered to us.
P.S. Aaron’s sons, according to some readings of the text, were killed for offering “strange fire” while under the influence of alcohol. Under this reading, there is no defense of “diminished capacity” while in G-d’s House.