Distinguishing Good From Evil, Blessing From Curse

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16 Mar 2016

Rava said, It is one’s duty levasumei, to make oneself fragrant [with wine] on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘arur Haman’ (cursed be Haman) and ‘baruch Mordechai’ (blessed be Mordechai) – Babylonian Talmud, Megillah 7b

iStock_000037611252SmallOver the centuries, the “duty” to make oneself “fragrant” (read, drunk) on Purim has represented the great example of “the exception proves the rule” when it comes to Jewish practice. After all, while we Jews have been accused of many things over the centuries, no one has suggested that we do not strive to distinguish between good and evil. Drawing such distinctions is what we do. We are also known for moderation in our lives. We enjoy wine and use it to sanctify many of our most dearly held rituals. But to get drunk? Never.

So this “duty” stands out in a few ways. Yet, because we have taken the common reading so to heart it rarely occurs to us to stop and examine our understanding of what Rava is really saying here. After all, what do we gain by being unable to distinguish between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai? Is he really suggesting we do that which is not normally associated with who we are?

The common understanding of Rava’s pronouncement is so embraced that the pious and the wise have, for centuries, bent over backwards to provide commentaries to make sense of it. Is the reasoning behind it hidden in gematria? In the need for us to blur the differences amongst the varied members of klal Yisrael so that we can be a more cohesive community? After all, just as the entire Jewish community was redeemed on Purim, so too it would have fallen – as one.

Rabbi Bezalel Zev Shafran, my beloved grandfather of blessed memory was not satisfied with the common understanding. His comments about the Purim story invite us… demands of us! … that we delve deeper into the story if we are to truly understand Rava’s intent. In the process, we are sure to learn that the most important and satisfying explanations are rarely the most obvious.

My grandfather, in questioning the common, straightforward understanding, notes that the very same Rava who posits this extraordinary directive also differs with his fellow sages just a few dapim later. In Megilah 12b-13a, the Talmud explores the significance of listing Mordechai’s lineage in Esther 2:5, “There was a Jewish man [lit., a man from Judah] in Shushan the capital, whose name was Mordechai, son of Yair, son of Shimi, son of Kish, a Benjaminite [ish Yemini]”. The Talmud asks, Why note only these three names? If Mordechai’s lineage is so important, why not trace it back to Binyamin? Why skip so many generations?

The Talmud wonders if the names speak to qualities associated with Mordechai. Ben Yair suggests that he was “a son who (Yair) brightened the eyes of the Jews through his prayers”. Likewise, Ben Shimi suggests he was “a son whose prayers were ‘heeded’”.  In other words, the verse speaks not to Mordechai’s lineage so much as his character.

Perhaps. But then the Talmud notes another apparent contradiction in the verse. Mordechai is referred to as Yehudi, meaning he is from the tribe of Judah, but he is also referred to as Yemini, meaning he is from the tribe of Benjamin. It is possible to be one or the other, but both? Which is it?

Rav Nachman responds that Mordechai’s father was from the tribe of Benjamin and his mother from the tribe of Judah. As such, he is crowned by both tribes. Rabanan add that the families of Judah and Benjamin would vie with one another for the honor and prestige of Mordechai’s birth.

My grandfather considers these explanations well but then suggests that our “contortions” are unnecessary if we just listen carefully to what Rava says regarding this discussion.  Rava, my grandfather notes, follows his own shita. He remains consistent and declares that the knesses yisrael – the community of Israel – said the opposite. They did not shower Mordechai with the accolades described in the Talmudic passage. Rather, they assigned blame, not credit for Mordechai’s birth to Judah and Benjamin. Why? Because they considered him to be the source of their trouble.  They said, reu mah asah li Yehudi u’ma shileim li Yemini – Look what the one from Judah did to me and what the one from Benjamin paid me.

What did the one from Judah do to me? He, King David, from the tribe of Judah, did not kill Shimi. And from Shimi descended Mordechai, who provoked Haman by not bowing down to him (and even if one were to argue that Mordechai could not bow to Haman who made himself an object of worship, nevertheless the Jews of that generation blamed Mordechai for all their troubles).

And what did the one from Benjamin pay me? Saul, from the tribe of Benjamin, did not kill Agag [God commanded Saul to eradicate the nation of Amalek. Saul however, spared Agag, the king of Amalek] and to what result? Haman oppressed the Jews and sought to destroy them, and he descended from Agag.

These observations are polemically opposed to the opinions that understood ish Yehudi haya b’Shushan habira as laudatory! Rava is saying that both miss the point. It is neither one or the other.

My grandfather draws attention to Rashi’s comment on the first words of Rava’s approach, Rava amar knesses yisrael amra l’idach gisa – the community of Israel said the opposite. Rashi says, “This is derogatory (l’tzeaka) and not complimentary, Ish Yehudi (the one from Judah) and Ish Yemini (the one from Benjamin) they were the cause of all this tza’ar suffering!”

My grandfather notes that in this comment and the one declaring that, “one is obliged to become intoxicated…” Rava is being consistent! In making this observation, my grandfather brilliantly makes clear that the adage that “Not all that meets the eye is the truth”, is true!

Too often, we seek conclusions before we know the entire story; before we do our due diligence to context, history, and perspective. We make conclusions based on personal prejudices and leanings. We too often interpret events through our own limited vision, without seeking the larger picture.

We reflexively accord Mordechai accolades. He is ben yair – brightness. He is ben shimi – his prayers were heeded. He is ben kish – he knocked [on gates of mercy]. We can certainly acknowledge that he is that and more. But wait! Rava cries out, “aren’t you ignoring what really happened? Aren’t you intoxicated with your own brand of ‘wine’ (prejudice, mindset) and failing to differentiate between who is cursed and who is blessed?”

Shouldn’t you dig a bit deeper into what really happened and how these events came about and more importantly how could these atrocities been avoided?

Rava is challenging us to dig deeper into the texts to discover Mordechai’s lineage and how that lineage plays out in our Purim drama.

My grandfather draws our attention to our need to be completely honest in understanding our own personal anguish and struggles, as well as collective and national suffering. How easy to blame it all on the villain – whoever you believe the villain to be today! But, a candid look into the facts creates a different view and perspective.

Rava is claiming that the two main Purim personalities are to a certain extent being confused! Rava declares, knesses yisrael amra l’idach gisa – “the community of Israel said the opposite”! They did not give Mordechai a testimonial dinner with bright lights and plaques, but idach gisa. Says Rashi, li’tzeaka ve’lo li’shvach – the community of Israel viewed Ish Yehudi and Ish Yemini as causes of distress, agony – not shevach.  Rava demands, Let’s call it by its right name!

Which is not to misunderstand who Mordechai is in the Purim narrative. He was a righteous, courageous tzadik and Haman was a wicked glutton and anti-Semite. Certainly, there is no moral parity between them. But – a big ‘but’ – from the perspective of one’s suffering and agony, one can easily mistake the right and wrong. They can be confused through that intoxication. Who would ever imagine that King David or King Saul would stand as root causes of crises and tragedies to come generations later?

Inherent in my grandfather’s novel approach is also the idea that when one is confronted with personal or national tzaros and “it all works out” in the end, there is a neis – a miracle, that is certainly wonderful and reassuring. So laud and praise Him for all the miracles.

But wait! Rava insists. You may very well be so intoxicated (i.e. you have such preconceived notions) that you can’t differentiate between the arur and the baruch, between Haman and Mordechai.

Do not be confused. Do not let the neis of the dawning day blur your reasoning and understanding. It was not all sweet like honey. It was li’tzeaka as Rashi says. Distressing. Hurtful.

If only, even while suffering and in pain, some could fully and honestly evaluate the situation with integrity, perhaps then God’s intervention would not have been needed at all! Remember, God does not want us to need miracles. Like any good father, He wants His children to be able to solve their difficulties with honesty and integrity, successfully.

So much of our personal and collective experiences are defined by our inability to view life’s realities with the perspective prescribed by Rava. As a result, we are stuck in our pained imaginations thinking that this is really what is happening. But is it? Is this what is happening or is it our confused, intoxicated imagination?

Rava would demand we find the way to distinguish.

To see my grandfather’s own words, download the PDF below.

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