‘Red Red Wine’ Parashat Vayikra / Purim 5779

The Talmud in Tractate Megilla [7b] describes an odd custom: “A person is obligated to become so intoxicated with wine on Purim that he does not know how to distinguish between ‘Cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.’” This custom is followed by a whopper of a story: “Rabba and Rabbi Zeira prepared a Purim feast with each other and they became intoxicated to the point that Rabba arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day, when he became sober and realized what he had done, Rabba asked G-d for mercy and revived Rabbi Zeira. The next year, Rabba said to Rabbi Zeira, ‘Let the Master come and let us prepare the Purim feast with each other’. [Rabbi Zeira] said to [Rabba], ‘Miracles do not happen each and every hour and I do not want to undergo that experience again.’” So many things are so wrong with this story but three questions stand out: How could two of our greatest Sages become so drunk that one of them actually murders the other? How could they even consider putting themselves in the same position the following year? Finally, after bringing an example illustrating how intoxication is so fraught with danger, how could our Sages command us to become drunk each Purim?

Rav Menachem Mendel Schneurson, the Lubavitcher Rebbe [Likutei Sichot 31: Purim B[1]], proposes a fascinating solution. In order to fully understand, some background is necessary. The Torah describes how Nadav and Avihu, two of Aharon’s sons, are killed when they offer a cryptic [Vayikra 10:1] “strange fire that they were not commanded to offer”. Our Sages in the Midrash try to understand precisely what Nadav and Avihu did that sealed their fate. One hypothesis asserts that they performed the priestly service while intoxicated[2]. Rabbi Chaim ben Attar, better known as the Or HaChaim HaKadosh, who lived in Morocco in the early 18th century, explains that our Sages meant that Nadav and Avihu became so spiritually elevated when they performed the priestly service that they died. Like the legendary Icarus, they flew too close to the sun. They approached so close to G-d that their souls refused to return to their bodies. The Rebbe interprets the word “intoxicated” metaphorically, meaning that Nadav and Avihu delved into the esoteric secrets of the Torah. He adds that not only were the two men metaphorically intoxicated, but that they were physically inebriated as well. We all know that a little alcohol greases the wheels of the spirit. Tragically, the combination of physical and spiritual intoxication led them inexorably to their deaths.

The Rebbe explains that this is precisely what happened with Rabba and Rabbi Zeira – Rabba[3], the teacher and Rabbi Zeira, the student. Both of them became intoxicated on Purim in order to learn esoteric Torah related to Purim. The spiritual heights were too much for Rabbi Zeira and he suffered the same fate as Nadav and Avihu. The next day, after the wine had worn off, Rabba miraculously returned Rabbi Zeira to our mundane world. One year later, Rabba believed that Rabbi Zeira had spiritually matured sufficiently to try taking another deep dive into esoteric Purim Torah. Rabbi Zeira wanted to play it safe and he passed.

What did Rabba teach Rabbi Zeira that literally “blew his mind”? Perhaps Rabba taught him “Torat HaNistar (Hidden Torah)”. Perhaps, buried deep somewhere in Lurianic Kabbala, lies the text that Rabbi Zeira found so difficult to handle. If that is the case, then I, not having ever delved into Kabbala, am out of my comfort zone. That said, I do know a little bit of “Torat HaNigleh” (Revealed Torah). I would like to zoom into a few verses in Megillat Esther that, if understood correctly, might have induced Rabbi Zeira’s reaction.

What is the halachic reason for drinking on Purim? What is the source of the Talmudic custom? Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan, better known as the “Chafetz Chaim”, who lived in Belarus about a century ago, writes in the “Biur Halacha [695:2]” that many of the miracles that occurred in Megillat Esther occurred during parties in which wine was served. In fact, no less than six parties[4] are described in the story of Purim and four of them make mention of wine. The Chaftez Chaim explains that we become intoxicated with wine on Purim in order to remember the miracles that were performed with wine. Let’s continue down this path. One particular party stands out as the only party in which drunkenness is explicitly mentioned [Esther 1:10-11]: “On the seventh day, when the king’s heart was merry with wine, he ordered… to bring Vashti the queen before the king with the royal crown, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty, for she was of comely appearance”. Vashti refuses to appear before the king and the king has her killed. She is replaced by Esther, who, unbeknownst to the king, is Jewish. Eventually, Esther uses her high position to thwart Haman’s plot to exterminate all of the Jews in the Persian Empire. Were it not for the wine, Esther would not have become Queen Esther and Haman might very well have been successful.

Achashverosh’s execution of Vashti in a drunken fit of rage had another result. The Megilla introduces the wicked Haman with the following words [Esther 3:1]: “After these events, King Achashverosh promoted Haman”. What are “these events” and what did they have to do with Haman’s promotion? Our Sages in the Midrash, identify Memuchan, the advisor who suggested to the king that he kill Vashti in punishment for her disobedience, with Haman. The Megilla should be understood accordingly: “After [taking Memuchan-Haman’s advice and replacing Vashti with Esther, a woman whom the king really liked] King Achashverosh promoted [Memuchan-Haman]”. Look closely at what has just happened: The very same inebriation that led to destruction of the Jewish People simultaneously led to their rescue. Had I been consulted, I would have suggested just skipping the whole thing: The King remains sober, Vashti survives, Haman remains a minor official, and the Jewish People live happily ever after. The miracle of Purim seems like a tremendous waste of time. Why does G-d go through all the trouble of creating a problem in order to miraculously solve it?

A few months ago, a pregnant woman and her husband were shot by terrorists outside the town of Ofra. The couple suffered serious injury but, thank G-d, survived. Tragically, their unborn child did not. The woman’s father told me that they counted more than thirty miracles that if even one of them had not occurred, his daughter would not have made it: Had the bullet entered her body one centimeter lower, had she arrived at the hospital one minute later, had she not had extra blood because of the fetus she was carrying… They cannot praise the Al-mighty enough. He has been too kind. But wait a minute – what about the terrorist that did the shooting? Did he defy G-d’s will? Are two forces at work here? Heaven forbid. While human beings have free will, G-d still oversees the world. Why, then, couldn’t He just have skipped the whole thing? Why not give the terrorist a flat tire so he never opens fire? Why does G-d go through all the trouble of creating a problem in order to miraculously solve it? I suggest that this is the paradox that drove Rabbi Zeira to insanity.

Rabbi Chuni Vogel suggests that perhaps this is what the Talmud means when it directs a person to drink on Purim “until he does not know how to distinguish between ‘Cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.’” What does that mean? Isn’t it clear that Haman, the villain, is cursed, and Mordechai, the hero, is blessed? Rabbi Vogel explains that the Talmud is teaching us something much deeper. It is teaching us that we will never be able to understand Divine reward and punishment. We cannot even define what is a “blessing” and what is a “curse”, what is “reward” and what is “punishment”. We can never attempt to understand G-d’s justice. All we can do is to praise Him for His unbounded mercy.

Purim Sameach and Shabbat Shalom,

Ari Sacher, Moreshet, 5779

Please daven for a Refu’a Shelema for Yechiel ben Shprintza and Tzvi ben Shoshana.

[1] This particular “ma’amar” is written in Yiddish. A Hebrew precis can be found in “Otzar Likutei Sichot [Purim 3]”

[2] This hypothesis is buttressed by the immediate proximity of the Torah commanding Aharon [Vayikra 10:9] “Drink no wine or other intoxicant, you or your sons, when you enter the Tent of Meeting, that you may not die” to the deaths of Nadav and Avihu.

[3]Rabba” in Aramaic, means “great”, while Z’eira means “small”.

[4] Two parties held by King Achashverosh and one by Queen Vashti (women only) in Chapter 1, one in Chapter 2 after Esther is crowned, and two parties thrown by Queen Esther in Chapter 5 and Chapter 7.

About the Author
Ari Sacher is a Rocket Scientist, and has worked in the design and development of missiles for over twenty years. He has briefed hundreds of US Congressmen on Israeli Missile Defense, including two briefings on Capitol Hill at the invitation of House Majority Leader. He speaks regularly for the Israeli Foreign Ministry. Ari is a highly requested speaker at AIPAC events, enabling even the layman to understand the "rocket science", and his speaking events are regularly sold-out. Ari has also been a scholar in residence in numerous synagogues in the USA and Canada. He is a riveting speaker, using his experience in the defense industry to explain the Torah in a way that is simultaneously enlightening and entertaining. Ari came on aliya from the USA in 1982. He studied at Yeshivat Kerem B’Yavneh, and then spent seven years studying at the Technion. Since 2001 he has published a weekly parasha shiur that is read around the world. Ari lives in Moreshet in the Western Galil along with his wife and eight children.
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