Adar 5764 – Drinking on Purim

2 Adar 5764
From the desk of: Rabbi Eli Meisels

Drinking on Purim–The Anti-thesis of Control, or its Apotheosis?

Of all the Yomim Tovim on the Jewish calendar, Purim, and its method of celebration is one of the hardest to fathom.

As Chazal tell us “Chayav Adam L’vsumei Ad D’lo Yoda Bein Arrur Haman L’varuch Mordechai.” (A person must drink until he does not know the difference between the accursed Haman, and the blessed Mordechai.) Very strange.

This would seem to be the anti-thesis of all that we stand for, of all that we are taught and practice our entire lives. All of our Mitzvos, indeed our entire Torah, are guides to controlled living, moderation in every action, even control of our wayward thoughts and desires. But for one day a year, all that is seemingly discarded, as we get, not just a little high, not just moderately sloshed, but absolutely, falling-down drunk.
It is almost as though we take a vacation from our customary seriousness and spiritual growth, to indulge in a good, old-fashioned drinking party. Sort of a yearly release, a chance to let off some steam.

But if it were only a release, then the Ari HaKadosh certainly wouldn’t favorably compare Purim to Yom Kippur!

Not only that, but the Meiri, quoted in Biur Halacha, contains a well-known rebuke to those who could turn Purim into a drunken revelry, and he emphasizes that one’s drinking on Purim is meant to bring him to Ahavas Hashem, and to Avodas Hashem Mitoch Simcha. (Love of G-d, and service of G-d through Joy.)

The Biur Halacha continues, and writes that one who knows that his drinking will lead to wild behavior, or to a Zilzul (debasement) of even one Mitzvah is better off not drinking at all on Purim.
This being the case, it certainly cannot be that the point of drinking on Purim is to let off some steam.

However, the Meiri itself bears explanation. How indeed is one to serve Hashem when he can no longer distinguish between Good and evil, and why would excessive drinking bring one to Ahavas Hashem in the first place?

It is true that drinking wine can help raise a person to a greater level of spirituality (see Yoma 76b), but that is accomplished by drinking in moderation, not by getting so drunk that one can no longer tell the difference between Arrur Haman and Baruch Mordechai.
Also, if drinking is such a good prescription for uplifted Avodas Hashem, then why limit it to Purim, why not start each day with a hefty L’Chaim?

Of course, one could answer that on Purim the miracle came about in part through the wine feasts that Queen Esther arranged for Haman which would be a reason to institute drinking – but, by the same token, the downturn of the Jews also began with a wine feast, the illicit Seudas Achashverosh. So that drinking wine would not seem to be the optimum way of recalling the Purim miracle, in fact, a case could be made to avoid wine altogether.

Why then, do we drink on Purim, and what possible benefit can this drinking bring to Avodas Hashem?

Perhaps, by examining another significant aspect of this holiday, we can shed some light on this question. One of the central themes of the day is that ‘ Hadar Kibluha B’Ahava’, the Jews reaffirmed their acceptance of the Torah in a spirit of love.

Whereas the original acceptance of the Torah had in it an element of compulsion, this time the Jews accepted all of the Torah entirely of their own volition.

Come Purim, one hears of this concept in rabbinic drashos and assorted vertlach, but it is peculiar that there is no formal remembrance for this reacceptance of the Torah on Purim.
The Rabbis did not enact any decree or custom to memorialize this momentous event. It seems almost forgotten amidst the eating and drinking of the day. Why is this?
If the original acceptance of the Torah merited an entire holiday of Shavuos in commemoration, should not its reacceptance merit some manner of formal observance?

Perhaps if we can succeed in understanding the nature of Kabbolas HaTorah B’Ahava and how it differed from and enhanced the original Kabbolas HaTorah, we may also gain a deeper understanding of our seemingly mundane, corporeal celebration of this holiest of days.

Chazal tells us that at Har Sinai, God held the mountain over the Jews, and said, “If you accept the Torah, all is well, if not, there shall be your grave.” (Shabbos 88a)
The Talmud then asks, if Hashem forced us to accept the Torah, then why are we bound by that acceptance?
We know that a commitment, which is agreed to under duress, is not considered valid.
Additionally, if the Jews were coerced into accepting the Torah, why was it considered so notable and praiseworthy?

Were Hashem to have held a mountain over the Egyptians’ heads, they would also have agreed to anything He demanded.
The Maharal explains that the idea of God holding the mountain above the Jews is a symbol of not so much physical coercion, as that might indeed be subject to protest; rather it symbolized what was almost an intellectual coercion.

Hashem exhibited the innate truth of the Torah with such clarity that we had no choice but to accept it. The truth, indeed the existential imperative of the Torah was made so clear to us that it’s acceptance became inescapable.

This willingness, by an entire nation, to instantly abandon the proclivities and the prejudices of a lifetime, and to replace them with an almost entirely new system of living, just because we recognize this new system to be true and essential, is a sign of an astonishing integrity and commitment to truth, and is indeed worthy of the highest praise and commendation.

It is also untrue that any nation would have accepted the Torah under identical conditions. The other nations were approached by God, and given the opportunity to receive the Divine Torah, yet each rejected it for essentially the same reason, it would require too great a change from their accustomed lifestyle. (Avodah Zara 2)

In fact, even the seven Noachide laws had proven too much for them to consistently maintain.

Thus, the nature of Kabbolas HaTorah at Sinai did not actually constitute coercion, but was rather an exercise of sound reasoning, which left the Jews no choice but to accept the Torah.

(This is Rav Dessler’s explication of the Maharal. For an in-depth treatment of Kabbolas HaTorah, and its interrelationship with “Na’aseh V’nishma”, see the Maharal in his Hakdama to Sefer Ohr Chadash.)

However, one explains the idea of ‘coercion’, though, it is clear that the first Kabbolas HaTorah was based on a logical conclusion, either not to be crushed by the mountain, or the recognition of the innate essentiality of the Torah.

Their acceptance was not an emotional decision, but a closely reasoned response, and a cognizance of there being no alternative.

It was a function of ‘Sechel’, of reason.
While this was certainly highly commendable, it is not yet the ultimate expression of devotion to the Ribono Shel Olam.
There is yet a higher relationship with Hashem. It is a relationship of Ahava.

Ahava is colloquially defined as Love, but in Jewish thought, it carries a much deeper significance.
It is the expression of a visceral devotion and attachment to something, with a stripping away of all logical considerations.
Reb Yisroel Salanter explains the difference between Ahava (Love) and Sechel (reason) with a Moshol, a parable.

Take a great Rabbi who has a son who has strayed from Hashem, and from his father’s teachings. The Rabbi has nothing in common with his son, and is in fact not even on speaking terms with him any longer.

This Rabbi also has a beloved Talmid, whom he considers very dear to his heart, indeed almost like a son. In fact, were one to ask the Rabbi, he would certainly say that he loves his Talmid more than his son.

One night a fire breaks out in the house and the rabbi has time to save only one of the two young men.
Without time for rational reflection, his instinctive reaction would be to save his son.
This says Rabbi Yisroel, is Ahava, an elemental, eternal love that is untempered by rational considerations.

In the words of Chazal, “Ahava Mekalkeles ess Hashura, true love corrupts the judgment.”
Even if pure reason dictates otherwise, this deep affinity, this love, can skew one’s actions away from the logical.
This is the highest relationship that a person can have with his creator, a relationship based not on fear of a Master, or on selfishness, but on a love for and a recognition of Hashem as our Father.

The subsequent reacceptance of Torah after the miracle of Purim was more than just an acceptance based on logic, it was, Chazal tell us, an acceptance of Ahava. It was an Ahava that stemmed from a recognition of Hashem’s deep love for Klal Yisroel, evinced by the many incredible miracles involved in the Jews’ salvation from Haman.

This was the superiority of the second acceptance of the Torah.
It was an acceptance based on a deeply felt love, and an innate devotion to Hashem and the Torah.

It was an acceptance brought about totally of the Jews’ own volition, with no element of constraint, even constraint of a purely intellectual nature.

Purim is the day when Klal Yisroel, as a whole, raised their collective character to a new level, a level far beyond the Sechel of Kabbolas HaTorah, a level of Ahava, of pure visceral devotion, of instinctive recognition of the Chessed of Hashem, and from that level, they rededicated themselves to the Torah, and reaccepted it, an acceptance of Love, of Devotion, of Ahava.

And that is the Avoda of Purim today.
We endeavor to return to that level of Ahava, to the Ahava that precipitated a second Kabbolas HaTorah, and we essay to serve Hashem from that heightened level of devotion.

This is why there is no one specific Mitzva to recall the reacceptance of Torah. Rather the entire day is a celebration, and an expression of Hadar Kibluha B’Ahava. Everything we do on Purim is mean t to bring us back to that rarefied level of Avodas Hashem, an Avoda from Ahava.

It is, of course, both difficult to reach this level of devotion, and to know if we are really acting form true Ahava, or from an artificial, mechanical Ahava.
There are so many factors, internal and external, influencing our behavior that it is often impossible to know what our real motivation may be.

We are blessed with a complex set of behaviors and inhibitions, such as Shame, Habit, Ga’ava, among countless others that prevent the real person from coming to the surface.
These concealing factors make it almost impossible for us to assess where we are really holding in our relationship to Hashem.

Most of these factors are a function of our protective Sechel, our so-called common sense influencing our behavior and overriding our actual desire.

For example, a person may really wish to sin, but fear of parents, neighbors, or sometimes even of Hashem, may prevent him form carrying out his real desire.

Or perhaps, simple “Boosha”, self consciousness, may stop him.
He may be embarrassed to be seen doing certain actions.

This, in and of itself, is actually not so terrible.

On the contrary, Chazal tell us that “Az Ponim L’Gehinnom”, a shameless person is destined to hell, as he is missing an essential safeguard against Aveiros.

It would be wonderful to possess enough shame to keep oneself perpetually in check.

However, it still won’t tell us where we are vis-à-vis our ultimate goal, which is serving Hashem from Ahava, from a real, visceral desire to do the will of Hashem.

The only way to accurately gauge our true spiritual level is to create a situation devoid of Sechel, and then see how we conduct ourselves.

How, though are we to dispose of these deeply ingrained inhibitions, and be sure that we are indeed acting from Ahava, and not from some other motivation?
This is where wine comes in.

Drinking wine strips away our protective Sechel, and exposes the P’nim, the inside. It allows the real person to come to the fore, and lets us see what we’re really all about.

When Chazal say, “Nichnass Yayin Yatzai Sod”, they are not warning drunkards against spilling the beans, they are telling us a universal truth; when one drinks wine he comes out, the real him, the him that’s hidden beneath all those layers of contrivance and artifice. In Chazal’s words:
“A person becomes known from his financial dealings, in his anger, and when he is intoxicated.”

This is the idea behind drinking on Purim.
It is a test, a test of our essence, of who we really are, and when we are really holding.

How will we behave with our Sechel neutralized, our inhibitions on vacation?

Do we fritter away the day on all sorts of Narishkeit, some harmless, others less so, or do we involve ourselves in Mitzvos and learning, albeit somewhat less coherently than usual.

Are we holding by Yemei Mishte V’Simcha, or Chas Veshalom, by Seudas Achashverosh?

In the words of Harav Yitzchok Hutner, zatzal, “On Purim we entrust ourselves to our Guf”.
For one day we let our body “call the shots”, and we hope that our neshama is the one that responds.

And this is the true meaning of the words, “one must drink on Purim until he does not know the difference between the accursed Haman and the blessed Mordechai.

“He does not know”, because his Sechel is gone for a day, and he can’t consciously distinguish between good and bad, but his actions, they don’t change, they are still the actions of Mordechai.
We don’t suddenly get a temporary license to act like Haman just because we are drunk.

This is why the Arizal says “Yom Ki-ppurim”, that Purim is somehow more momentous that Yom Kippur, for on Yom Kippur we serve Hashem and repent while in a sublimely spiritual state, Mitoch Yirah, whereas Purim is an evaluation of our behavior while unrestrained by convention and sobriety, without the Yirah.

It’s easy to be a Tzaddik when everyone is fasting, davening all day, and dressed in sober white robes. In fact, to actually commit a sin on Yom Kippur requires some degree of enterprise.
But let’s see how you behave when you’re drunk, the Sechel is gone, and the surroundings are anything but conducive to Tzidkus.

Then we’ll know who and what you really are.

But it’s not only a test, it is an opportunity:

An opportunity to escape the limitations of our Sechel and to serve the Ribono Shel Olam not from habit, or convention, or even from Yiras Shamayim, but from a much deeper stimulus, from Ahava.

It is our chance to confront, and amend the casual error of Gezeiras Haman, the enjoyment of the feast of Achashverosh, and its modern-day counterparts; for by drinking ourselves dizzy, and still serving Hashem, we are returning to the original Purim in Shushan, where the Jews began with Seudas Achashverosh, but ended with Yemei Mishte V’Simcha.

This is the Avoda of Purim, and that, is why Chazal have told us to drink!