Lechaim — It’s Purim

My earliest Purim memories are joyous. Festive gatherings and celebrations were held in the synagogues while jubilation and dancing dominated the streets. Young and old, rich and poor, celebrated side by side, jovial, reveling and genuinely happy.

Masquerades and spirited merry making seemed the order of the day at an endless number of parties that served an endless variety of food and beverage. Yes, beverages, especially alcoholic beverages. Those were of course off limits to us, children, but adults were free to enjoy. This day seemed an anomaly for a religion so vigorous in decorum.

One must indeed wonder why Jews celebrate this holiday with such abandon. Jewish law stipulates that all holidays be joyful, but Purim goes beyond the norm. On Purim a Jew is religiously required to reach a state of being incapable of distinguishing between the words “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.”

What is the reason for this custom and why the emphasis on this particular distinction? As with all Jewish questions the answer is found on four levels – the technical, the symbolic, the homiletic and the mystical.

 The Technical Answer

Jewish holidays commemorate our history’s miracles. On Passover we eat Matzah to commemorate our ancestors’ hasty exodus from Egypt, during which they had little time to bake bread. On Chanukah we light candles to commemorate the miracle of a small jar of oil that burned for eight days. Similarly, on Purim we drink wine to commemorate the salvation of our people, the tale of which primarily unfolded during the royal banquets when, as the Megillah testifies, wine flowed freely.

The fall of Queen Vashti, which precipitated the rise of Queen Esther, occurred at a royal feast. Esther was welcomed into the royal family with a series of gala celebrations. Finally, Esther identified Haman as an enemy of the crown, at an intimate dinner party where, once again, wine flowed freely. As we eat Matzah on Passover and light candles on Chanukah, so do we drink wine on Purim to commemorate the miracles of our history.

The Symbolic View

From the time of Haman’s libel until the time Mordechai succeeded in orchestrating their salvation, our ancestors were in a state of intense anxiety. Only in retrospect would they know that there had been no cause for concern. If only they could have known earlier what they knew later, they could have avoided tremendous anguish.

One important aspect of the Purim celebration is to reflect upon G-d’s salvation. In times of trouble a Jew must turn to G-d. Anguish and worry do not solve problems but placing our trust in G-d, while doing all we can to help ourselves, does.

Here then is the symbolic meaning of being incapable of distinguishing between “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.” Despite the worries that may plague our individual lives, we force ourselves to relax during this day with a glass of wine and enjoy the tone of our holiday. By placing our trust in G-d we avoid the anxiety that dominates the “in-between” state, the state between the problem point of “cursed is Haman” and the solution point of “blessed is Mordechai.”

The Homiletic Perspective

Celebration and joy must lead to unity. Discord develops between friends for two reasons. A, when one causes harm to the other, acting as Haman did. B, when one becomes jealous of the other’s blessed fortune. These two states are represented by the terms “cursed is Haman” and “blessed is Mordechai.”

On Purim one must reach out and forgive long-standing grievances and jealousies. We rejoice with friends and share a glass of wine in the hopes of dismissing old grudges and rekindling old friendships.

The Mystical Explanation

The Purim miracle defies comprehension. Our ancestors had largely assimilated into the Persian society. They were invited to Persian parties, admitted to Persian circles and perceived themselves as full Persian citizens.

When the royal edict was issued requiring all Persians to bow before the powerful minister Haman, most Jews were prepared to obey. Mordechai and perhaps a handful of others refused. Enraged, Haman complained to the King who, in turn, issued an edict against the Jewish nation.

The Jewish people should have objected to the wide brush Haman painted. They should have argued that the entire community was innocent, and that Mordechai was the only guilty party. The community should not be made to bear the burden of one person’s sin.

Not a single Jew took up this argument. When the time came to choose between their eternal commitment to G-d and their new-found and tenuous friendship with Persia, every Jew chose G-d. When it came to choosing between embracing spiritual meaning and prostrating themselves before Persian pleasures, they chose G-d. Standing shoulder to shoulder with Mordechai, they spurned the rewards of social acceptance and chose instead to be aligned with G-d.

Why did they choose G-d? It wasn’t out of love or reverence, these were irreverent Jews. It wasn’t out of scholarship and piety, these were assimilated Jew. Why did they choose G-d? Because the Jewish connection to G-d is eternal and beyond reason. This connection has weathered many powerful storms and trying challenges, yet it is still alive. Our bond with G-d is compelling because the Jew and G-d are linked at the essence. When faced with a challenge the Jew embraces G-d, regardless of prevailing spiritual conditions.

This transcendental bond is the mystical dimension of drinking wine on Purim. The essence of this holiday is not emotive or intellectual. It is best captured by the soul, not the brain or heart. When wine has dulled the brain and coherent thought has ceased to function, the only guiding light is the soul, who despite inebriation remains eternally faithful.  This is the spirit of Purim.

Word of Caution
Despite the many good reasons for wine on Purim, we must be exceedingly careful to do so in a manner that is healthy, safe and balanced. It is inconceivable that G-d would want us to institute a ritual that places our health and the lives our children at risk.

Be merry and happy Purim to you, but be exceedingly careful too.

About the Author
Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, a renowned lecturer, serves as Rabbi to Congregation Beth Tefilah in London Ontario. He is a member of the curriculum development team at Rohr Jewish Learning Institute and is the author of two books and nearly a thousand online essays. You can find his work at www.innerstream.org
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