Eat, Drink and Be Merry – We Almost Died

As we approach Purim, I cannot resist talking about this beautiful festival.  It is one of two festivals of the winter, Chanukah and Purim.  While the events of Chanukah were principally a threat to our spiritual survival, Purim recalls a threat to the physical existence of the Jewish people.  Haman attempted to physically destroy every Jewish man, woman and child.  We celebrate our deliverance from this threat with mitzvot that focus on the physical.  We give money to the poor and gifts of food to our friends; we eat a festive meal and drink wine.

Giving gifts to one another also promotes unity among the Jewish people.  When first proposing his evil plot to Achashverosh, Haman described the Jewish people as a “scattered and dispersed nation.”  He did not mean only that we were geographically dispersed, but that we were not unified, and thus would be easy prey for our enemies.   (On a spiritual level, we also understand this to mean that when the Jewish people are disunited, God does not protect them fully.  National unity brings about spiritual wholeness and closeness to God.)  To counteract this situation, the Sages decreed that we must be concerned with the welfare and friendship of our fellow Jews. We strengthen Jewish unity by giving gifts to the poor, food to our friends, and by celebrating together with festive meals.

One of the most peculiar laws of Purim is the obligation to drink wine, and even become intoxicated.  As the Talmud states, “A person is obligated to become inebriated on Purim, until he does not know the difference between ‘Blessed is Mordechai and cursed is Haman.’”  Excessive drinking is frowned upon by Jewish law, yet here it appears that the law specifically advocates drinking.  Clearly, a person may not become so drunk that he loses control of himself and acts or speaks inappropriately; nevertheless he is obligated to become slightly intoxicated.  Some commentaries explain that the purpose of the drinking is to remind us that the Purim miracles happened as a result of intoxication — Achashverosh became drunk at the feast, which resulted in the execution of Vashti, his queen.  Esther invited Achashverosh and Haman to a drinking party, which resulted in the hanging of Haman and the salvation of the Jewish people.   Since drinking also has the effect of dulling the intellectual and emphasizing the physical aspects of an individual, it is a fitting way to show that the physical component, rather than the intellectual or spiritual, of the Jewish nation was threatened by its enemies on Purim.

Consuming alcohol mirrors the events of Purim in another way as well.  Drinking lowers one’s inhibitions and amplifies emotions.  Intoxication causes a person to reveal elements of his inner self that are usually hidden.  What transpired on Purim revealed the love of God for the Jewish people and His Divine Providence, both of which had been concealed during the time of the Persian Exile.

One of the greatest of Jewish mystics, Rabbi Yitzchak Luria, points out that the Biblical term for the Day of Atonement, Yom Kipurim, can also be read as Yom KePurim, meaning “a day like Purim.”  On the surface this seems illogical — there are no two days that appear less similar than the solemn fast of Yom Kippur and the boisterous, joyful celebrations of Purim!   Moreover, the implication of this statement is that Purim is the greater of the two days.  Yom Kippur is compared to Purim, as if Yom Kippur were but a lesser example of the Purim archetype.

A deeper look at the purpose of these two holidays will help us understand their relationship to each other.  There are two ways to become close to God, the path of awe and fear, and the path of love and joy.  Both are necessary and both play important roles in Judaism.  Generally, the various prohibitions in the Torah reflect the relationship of awe and reticence, while the positive obligations reflect the relationship of love and reaching out to God.

Yom Kippur, with its prohibitions against eating, drinking and other physical pleasures, represents the path of awe and fear of God.  An individual stops his life, completely ignores the physical side of his being and focuses only on the spiritual.  One can achieve clarity of perception on Yom Kippur by subduing the interference and static of the physical world.

Purim on the other hand, provides a path to God through love and joy.  Purim teaches us that one can achieve an even higher level of connection to God and clarity of perception through the feelings of love than through feelings of fear and awe.  Thus, Yom Kippur is like Purim, but not quite Purim, because the love of God is more powerful than the fear of God.

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