As we approach the raucous holiday celebration of Purim this month, we must ask ourselves a rather sobering question: why are we commanded to observe the holiday by drinking to excess? We know, of course, that we are obligated to drink four cups of wine during the Passover Seder as a way of symbolizing the Torah’s four different ways of describing our redemption from Egypt (Exodus 13). However, to fulfill this commandment, four cups of grape juice will work just as well. And if grape juice isn’t “your cup of tea,” four cups of Manischewitz – over the course of several hours (and several courses) – will make only the slightest dent in your sobriety.
But on Purim, the actual command appears to encourage drinking in order to achieve a state of intoxication. Perhaps the tradition began as a way of identifying with the characters in the story. The elite of Shushan spend an inordinate amount of time attending parties and indulging in their favorite libations (the story often feels like a Bette Davis movie from the 1940s). The text even says (twice) that the celebration of Purim shall be a day for “drinking and merrymaking.” (Esther 9:18-19).
The Talmud also weighs in on the issue of drinking on Purim, commanding us “to make oneself fragrant with wine on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘arur Haman’ (cursed be Haman) and ‘barukh Mordekhai’ (blessed be Mordecai).” (Megillah 7b). Here, the Talmud advises us not just to have one or two, but to drink so much that we can no longer tell the difference between our cheers for Mordecai and our jeers for Haman.
And so we must ask, to borrow a phrase from another famous holiday, “Mah nishtanah?” Why is this night different from all other nights? On all other nights we are expected, as Jews, to behave with dignity, composure, modesty and in accordance with our highest ethical standards. But on Purim, we are commanded “to cut loose,” throw caution to the wind and engage in the sort of behavior that we are taught – in every other context – to scrupulously avoid.
Over the centuries, our rabbis have offered a variety of explanations for this behavioral aberration. Some have suggested that an evening of indulgence enables a person to reach a new level of knowledge; the difference between knowing something in one’s head and knowing something in one’s heart. For these rabbis, the removal of inhibition is the first step toward a more open and accepting heart. Some rabbis also have claimed that such drinking – on occasion – can lead to a more ecstatic experience of God. As we loosen up, we are more likely to discard the layers of our ego that often preclude us from sensing the divine presence. Today, however, given all that we know about the dangers of drinking to excess (both to ourselves and to others), the rabbis’ romantic idealizations feel hopelessly obsolete.
But as we recognize the perils of even “a once a year” indulgence, the unique legacy of Purim continues to persist across the generations and the movements. These days, though, our search for a more enlightened state may lead us not to wisdom or knowledge, but rather to humility. Our rabbis teach us that when we can no longer tell the difference between cursing Haman and blessing Mordecai, we will realize that the line between Mordecai’s goodness and Haman’s evil may be thinner, and more permeable, than we once thought. Perhaps we will recognize that most people – including ourselves – reside somewhere in a gray zone; somewhere between the black and the white, between the yetzer tov and the yetzer harah, struggling to find the right side of the line, but often falling back again. Even if we are unable to tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai, perhaps we will become more aware of our own failings, and in so doing, be less judgmental of others.
So if you do decide to heed the Talmud’s words (still not recommended!) and fulfill this particular mitzvah, please be sure to be safe, and never, ever get behind the wheel. One’s search for wisdom must not take precedence over common sense and public safety. But for those of you who may celebrate a bit more modestly, may you also have a wonderful Purim. May this Purim lead you to joy, celebration, generosity, laughter and, most importantly, humility and kindness. Hag Purim Sameach!
RABBI HOWARD VOSS-ALTMAN is the senior rabbi of Temple Beth-El in Providence.