Purim Edition: It’s a Mitzvah To Get Drunk?!

How could our Sages demand such dangerous, unseemly behavior?

The hidden meaning of the commandment to “get drunk” on Purim.

Table for Five: Purim Edition

 Edited by Salvador Litvak, the Accidental Talmudist

Rava said: A person is obligated to become intoxicated with wine on Purim until he is so intoxicated that he does not know how to distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.

– Megilla 7b, B. Talmud

Bracha Goetz, Author of 40 Jewish Children’s Books

A person is guided to become intoxicated on Purim with what results from the crushing, squeezing, and fermentation of sweet fruit until he is so intoxicated that he does not know how to distinguish between evil and goodness.

There are five rungs on The Pleasure Ladder of Goodness that correspond to the five levels of the human soul. Pleasures on each consecutive level nourish a higher level of the soul. The lowest and most transitory level contains all the wonderful physical pleasures like whole foods, nature, and movement. These gifts uplift and nourish the lowest level of the soul, the nefesh, attached to our bodies.

Going up the Ladder, we find Love, Meaning, and Creativity on the higher rungs, with each level of pleasure being more lasting and providing us with more connection. On the highest rung we find Transcendence, the level of pleasure providing the greatest sense of connection of all. Transcendence involves immersion in the world while being able to glimpse the cosmic essence of our Universe. This is the potential of Purim, an experience that Yom Kippur, a day aspiring to be like Purim, cannot even reach.

And what is the price to climb this Stairway to Heaven on Earth? Simple gratitude. On the fifth level of Transcendence, we are able to finally see how all the painful struggles – the crushing, squeezing, and fermentation of each sweet gift given – our challenges – ultimately stem from goodness. That’s Purim’s pure potential – getting drenched in cosmic gratitude.

Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Thirtysix.org

Wine is a drink and da’as is knowledge, but they share something: the quality of each is affected by the container it is in. The “humbler” the container, the better each maintains its integrity. Thus, wine is a symbol of da’as. One who possesses all of Torah is called an eshkol—grape cluster. It’s a play on the word which can be understood as ish kol bo—a person in whom is everything, that is, all of Torah, which of course means da’as because “there is no da’as other than Torah.”

Being associated with da’as, wine is also closely connected to the Fifty Gates of Understanding with which, the Talmud says, Creation was made. This is why Haman built his gallows 50 amos high, but that it another story.

Therefore, the point of the wine on Purim is not to reduce da’as but to increase it. The soul knows that ultimately there really is no difference between Mordechai and Haman, because God runs the world and directs all of history. By drinking just enough wine on Purim we neutralize the body so the soul can have more of a say in how we perceive the world and Divine Providence. Then we can better see how the evil people of history have no power just as the good people have none as well.

God empowers each, the good to do their good and the evil to do their evil. It’s up to us to decide which we want to be.

Miriam Yerushalmi, CEO SANE; Author, Reaching New Heights series

Purim is often contrasted with Chanukah. Both are holidays instituted by the rabbis in response to our nation’s miraculous salvation from the threat of total destruction. On Chanukah, our enemies attempted to crush our spiritual existence; on Purim, they planned to annihilate our physical existence. But is there really a distinction between the two?

On Chanukah, we spin the dreidel until the letters become so blurry that we can’t tell whether it’s a nun or a gimmel, a hey or a shin.

On Purim, we imbibe until our thinking becomes so blurry that we can’t differentiate between good guys and bad guys.

Both holidays demonstrate that whether something seems to be good or not good, everything is from Hashem and for our ultimate good.

We are enjoined to drink wine on Purim in a holy manner at our halachically mandated feast, to rectify the unholy drinking we indulged in at Achashveirosh’s uninhibited revel. This rectification does not necessarily have to come about through actual alcoholic intoxication. The Mishnah Brurah teaches that we can achieve it by drinking slightly more than usual and falling asleep. The Slonimer Rebbe explains the directive to “get drunk on Purim” to mean that we should be intoxicated *by the holiday itself,* for “contemplating the great miracles Hashem did for us is enough reason to enter into an exalted state of transcendent joy.” In that state, we understand that everything is good; we cannot distinguish between blessings and curses, because there is no distinction between them.

Lt.(res) Yoni Troy, Counselor, Beit-Hatzayar for At-Risk-Youth, Jerusalem

The Purim story, like this mitzva, stand out in the Jewish faith. There are no supernatural events and the heroes are not “the Jewish Ideal.” Yet Purim, Rambam explains, unlike other holidays, will always be celebrated.

Mordechai, the sly politician, cements his status by getting Esther to marry the King. Meanwhile, Mordechai’s political-power struggle ignites Haman’s anti-Semitic decree.

Still, Esther and Mordechai go from being self-involved takers to risking their livelihood, their status and their lives for their people. This decision is more impressive because they aren’t prophets or rabbis. They aren’t typical Jewish heroes. They’re just people who make the right decision at the right time.

Purim’s mitzvas emphasize this twist. In the Bible, G-d fixed our problems supernaturally. Now, Purim celebrates giving power to the people — whether it is by helping the needy, appreciating those around us or enjoying a hearty feast with loved ones. The most surprising Purim commandment is to get intoxicated, the idea being that sometimes in life we must shift our perspective on the world, as did Mordechai and Esther.

The megillah teaches us that we control our lives. We cannot just wait for miracles or to become millionaires to begin helping others. We must start doing good now.

Fortunately, we usually don’t have to make Purim’s extreme decisions and risk our lives. Still, each of us has a duty to make the world a better place, beginning with the small day-to-day things, moving ever forward so we all build a better world.

Ben Elterman, Screenwriter, Essayist, Speech Writer at Mitzvahspeeches.com

In 2020, I took that idea quite literally when my costume was a MAGA hat and a Bernie 2020 shirt. I went as someone who was so drunk they couldn’t tell the difference between blessing and curse.

Honestly, I was scared to wear the costume. I got odd looks and perplexed stares. But one question that people always asked me was, “Which one is the blessing and which one is the curse?” To that I responded with a tipsy “I can’t tell!”

The Vilna Gaon says that the labels of blessing and curse can only be understood “at the end.” In the middle of the Purim story, many of the Jews viewed Mordechai as the curse and the source of Haman’s antisemitism. During the big party at the beginning, many of the Jews were probably drinking with Haman.

No matter how smart we think we are, we never know what’s going on behind the scenes. Petty squabbles shouldn’t divide us. Theoretically we can use politics as a tool to enact social change. But when we let politics become the end and not the tool, when the banner of republican or democrat supersedes our Jewish identity… that’s when we’ve gone too far. A blessing may be an incredible hardship at first (i.e. children) but may pay off splendidly in the end. So on Purim we drink to turn off our over active intellect and trust in Hashem that in the end, it’s all a blessing.

With thanks to Miriam Yerushalmi, Ben Elterman, Rabbi Pinchas Winston, Bracha Goetz, and Yoni Troy

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