A Yom Kippur thought on the origin of a Jewish toast: "L'chaim" - "to life!"

I shared this reflection with my community a few years ago on a Yom Kippur evening.
Each Shabbat morning in our synagogue, before we say the Kiddush, the prayer over wine, it is traditional for the leader to say 'savri meranan,' or 'savri haverei,’ which basically means, “Your attention please!”.  This is traditionally followed by everyone saying, with great enthusiasm, “L’chaim!"  If you know Hebrew, or if you ever saw Fiddler on the Roof, you know that L’chaim! means "To Life!"  Then we say the blessing over wine.

You may have wondered where this peculiar Jewish toast comes from.  In fact, it is almost a thousand years old.  The Midrash Tanhuma, a collection of ancient midrashim, describes this practice, in a way that has a lot to teach us about wine, about community, and about each other. 

The Midrash says: When there's a death-penalty trial, and the verdict is about to be announced, one of the judges announces: savri meranan?  “Your attention - what is your verdict?”

If the accused is going to be executed, all the judges say, le-mitah!  “To death!”

If he is NOT going to be executed, instead, they shout out l’chaim!,  which means "To life!"

Then the midrash adds:  “And so it is, when someone is about to drink some wine, that that leader should announce, savri, ”your attention,” and everyone should respond, l’chaim – “to life!”

Now this is peculiar.  The most popular Jewish toast - so popular that there's a song about it in a Broadway musical - is derived from an ancient death penalty court procedure.  It's bizarre – so it probably has something to teach us.

Let me tell you how I came to understand what I think this passage is really about. 

It started when someone who I didn’t know came to make an appointment with me, in my early years as a rabbi.  He said, "I am Jewish, and even though I know Jews aren't supposed to be alcoholics and addicts, I am an alcoholic and an addict.  This is my first month of recovery, I'm going to Alcoholics Anonymous, and they're recommending that I find a 'spiritual advisor.'  I've never considered myself particularly spiritual.  Having a meeting with a rabbi is probably the last thing I would think of doing in my life, and I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to talk about with a 'spiritual advisor' - but here I am to give it a try.”

Thus embarked one of the deepest and holiest things I have ever done as a rabbi, something I have had the honor to repeat several times with different individuals who have taught me the real meaning of teshuvah - repentance - more deeply than any holy text ever could.  I encountered people with the inner strength to make life transitions far more intense and difficult than I have ever attempted in my life - people who have demonstrated to me just how vital it is to live one's life in healthy spiritual balance, and how a key to conquering addiction is to put into practice so many of the principles that we focus on during the High Holy Days and throughout the Jewish year:  cultivating a sense of gratitude, an appreciation for the miracles of the everyday; having healthy self-regard coupled with healthy humility; finding appropriate means of dealing with disappointment; having a willingness to strive thoughtfully to make each day as good or better than the previous day.

Yes, there are a lot more Jews in recovery from addictions than you might have guessed.  Actually, Jews are no less likely to be alcoholics or addicts of any kind than Americans as a whole.

The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous, which form the basis of recovery programs for all kinds of addictive behaviors, are so similar to the 12th century writings of the Jewish scholar Moses Maimonides on repentance that you could sometimes think that Maimonides actually wrote the 12 steps.  In both, a first step in changing one's life is to admit one's powerlessness in the face of the behavior that one wants to change, and then to resolve, not just in thought, but in words, to make a change.  Both Maimonides and the 12 steps demand a deep process of personal stock-taking, making direct amends to other people that one has harmed, and ultimately resolving to live more fully and joyfully.

When I had the opportunity to spend some extended time recently with someone who is in recovery from addiction, he said, "The great thing about 12-step programs is it gives people their lives back."

In this and every community there are a multitude of reasons why people engage in potentially addictive behaviors.  For some, it is about relief of stress.  Many in our community are concerned about finances, about jobs, about retirement, about housing, about safety and the world situation.  Many people are on edge, and we often feel the tension in the air.  We know that different people are developing different coping mechanisms for any stressful and scary time - some coping mechanisms that are more or less healthy than others.

So I think it is quite profound that every time we take a celebratory drink here at the synagogue, even when it's just Manischewitz, (and actually, even if it's grape juice,) we start out by saying savri haverei and l’chaim.  We start with a toast that reminds us that we're actually dealing with a matter of life and death. 

This toast reminds us that there's a way to drink - or eat - or medicate - or spend - or gamble - or have sex - or do anything else which is pleasurable - that is l’chaim, “for life,” and that there's also a way to do each of those things that is the antithesis of l’chaim - that leads to the destruction of souls and bodies.

Presumably that's one of the reasons why one of the sins we recite in our Al chet confessional prayer on Yom Kippur is is 'al chet she-chatanu le-fanekha be-ma'akhal uv-mishteh' – “For the sins we have committed against you related to food and drink.”

May all your actions in your new year be truly l’chaim – “for life.


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