There certainly are many reasons to look forward to Purim. It is a time of feasting, joy, and merriment. We celebrate an important victory over our enemies, which was a precedent for many other such victories over the course of our history. We read one of the most moving stories in our entire tradition, and we have good fun while we’re doing it.
Children masquerade, we all sing and dance, we give and receive gifts from our friends, and the poor certainly have something to be happy about as we distribute tzedakah generously.
And it happens to be my birthday.
So why do I dread it so? Why do I feel a pit in my stomach when Shabbat Shekalim comes around, heralding the upcoming month of Adar, and the day of Purim that is soon to follow?
It is because on Purim I have been face to face with death. Not once, but several times.
And it is because on Purim I have witnessed ugly and despicable behavior exhibited by the best and the brightest of our young yeshiva students.
It was on a Purim long ago that I was called to a hospital to learn of the death in a horrible automobile accident of a young man with whom I was particularly close.
It was on another Purim not so long ago that I personally witnessed a car run over a little boy on the parking lot of a famed Torah institution. The little boy did not die, but he came close to having his leg amputated.
And it was on a very recent Purim that I was called to counsel an emotionally traumatized Ha-tzolah ambulance driver who had spent the day delivering a number of teenagers to the local hospital, and who had to break the news of the death of one of them to the boy’s parents.
The boy who died in the accident, the careless driver of the car that ran over the little boy, and all the adolescent passengers of the Hatzolah ambulance had just performed what they thought was a mitzvah. They became drunk on Purim.
The incidents I’ve just described are just the most tragic results of the overconsumption of alcohol on Purim. Less tragic, but abominable nonetheless, are the scenes that can be witnessed in front of the schools and shuls of our neighborhoods on Purim day. Scenes of young Torah scholars rolling in puddles of their own vomit, totally incoherent, uttering obscenities that they would be ashamed to pronounce if they were sober.
I have been concerned with the problem of substance abuse, specifically alcohol abuse, in the Orthodox Jewish community for many years. This issue has been on my agenda throughout my career: first as a psychotherapist in private practice in our community, later as the rabbi of a large synagogue in Baltimore, and still later when I became the executive vice president of the Orthodox Union.
The most troubling aspect of the phenomenon of alcohol abuse throughout our community, but especially among the youth, is that alcohol consumption is condoned within the context of our religious celebrations and on the premises of our religious institutions. Even more troubling is that alcohol use is sanctioned, and in some cases encouraged and even idealized, by many of the leaders of our community.
When I assumed the position of executive vice president of the Orthodox Union, now fully ten years ago, I decided to address the problem proactively. To this end I issued the following public statement just before the first Purim of my tenure. I made sure it was prominently displayed on the OU website (where it can still be viewed at www.ou.org/chagim/purim/alcohol.htm). I gave it the title “Purim and Alcohol Can be a Dangerous Mix”:
The entire month of Adar should be devoted to expressions of joy with Purim as its climax. We celebrate in numerous ways, including reading the Megillah, offering prayers of thanksgiving, sharing gifts with friends, giving alms to the poor. We also celebrate by feasting.
One component of the feasting, is mishteh, drinking, and it is here that special caution must be taken. Our sages do tell us to drink until we cannot discriminate between “Cursed is Haman” and “Blessed is Mordechai.” This statement cannot be taken to mean that we should abuse alcohol and fall into a drunken stupor. Indeed, classic traditional sources, including the Shelah and the Yesod v’Shoresh ha’Avodah, write critically of those who consume immoderate amounts of wine in what they consider a mitzvah.
In our time, when alcohol abuse has become a serious problem for the community, it has become especially important to urge all who observe Purim to do so without resorting to immoderate drinking of wine or liquor. Everyone should consult the precautionary words of the Rishonim and Acharonim as quoted by the Chafetz Chaim (Biur Halacha, 695:2): “We are not commanded to reduce ourselves to levels of drunkenness, but rather to rejoice in a manner that will lead us to the love of God.”
I myself have seen suffering and tragedy result from alcohol excess in celebration of Purim. I urge all who read this message to avoid such excesses, and to strive for a Purim of reverence and joyous spirituality. Have a happy Purim, and a “kosher” one as well.
I must report that when I first circulated the above statement I received at least twice as many criticisms as expressions of support. The critics felt I was either exaggerating the situation greatly or minimizing the importance of the injunction to drink on Purim.
Now, a decade later, denial of the severity of the problem of drunkenness on Purim, and of alcohol consumption all year, has diminished. More and more people, professional and laymen alike, have become concerned with the problem and are attempting to address it.
Most gratifying is that for some years now prestigious roshei yeshiva and rabbanim have lent their signatures to proclamations warning against excessive drinking on Purim day.
However, the problem has far from disappeared. Purim is still a day when youngsters imbibe alcohol, often given to them illegally by adults. It is still a day when we can witness disgraceful, nay decadent, behavior in the immediate environs of schools and shuls. And it is still a day when ambulances speed to emergency rooms with cargos of young adolescents in the throes of toxic reactions to alcohol.
Now you know why I have come to dread Purim.
But Purim is just one day out of the year. As the Yiddish folk song has it, “Heint iz Purim, morgen iz oys” – “Today is Purim, tomorrow it’s gone.” The merriment and laxity of Purim are indeed confined to that one day. But what about the rest of the year?
To give the reader a feel for the nature of the problem before us I must provide some factual background.
I begin with the assertion that there is convincing evidence that alcohol abuse and alcoholism are on the increase in Orthodox Jewish society. Psychologists and social workers who practice in the frum community can testify as to the prevalence of this phenomenon. Sadly, so can police officers, judges, and the offices of district attorneys throughout the metropolitan New York area.
The dangers and consequences of alcohol are many. Domestic violence, also on the rise in the frum community, is often associated with alcohol abuse. Scientific studies have shown that alcohol is implicated in most incidents of domestic violence. Welfare workers know that child abuse and neglect are closely associated with excessive alcohol consumption by parents. Alcohol use is one of the primary factors causing deterioration of academic performance and behavioral difficulties in school.
What is also of great concern is the established fact that alcohol is a gateway substance and often leads to experimentation with illegal, and even more dangerous, substances. Young people who experiment with alcohol are much more likely to move on to marijuana, cocaine, and other harmful drugs.
That alcohol consumption is a primary factor in automobile accidents is common knowledge. What is less known are the findings of organizations such as the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, whose workshops I have attended, that a large number of diseases and conditions are at least partially attributable to alcohol abuse. They include breast cancer, cardiomyopathy, cirrhosis, dementia, duodenal ulcers, hypertension, liver cancer, and seizure conditions.
School counselors familiar with patterns of alcohol abuse among their students have noticed two interesting phenomena. Number one, kids are beginning to experiment with alcohol at earlier and earlier ages. A clinical social worker, who works as a consultant for several Orthodox Jewish day schools, recently described to me the work she is doing with fifth graders who have been experimenting heavily with the liquor that is so easily accessible in their homes.
Number two, whereas smoking, drinking, and the use of illegal drugs was in the past much more prevalent among boys than among girls, that long ago ceased being the case in general society and has now changed in the Orthodox Jewish world as well. As in so many other facets of life, the gender gap has slammed shut when it comes to alcohol consumption. What is worse news – but news well worth knowing – is that girls and women get hooked faster and suffer harsher consequences sooner than do boys.
The description of some of the consequences of excessive alcohol consumption that I have just outlined, in a very abbreviated fashion, is meant to dispel the complacency of our community when it comes to the matter of controlling the availability of alcohol. For what one finds shocking as one begins to become familiar with the problem is the extent to which alcohol is so freely available in our synagogues and has become such an important element of our religious observances.
Speak to any of our youngsters with an alcohol problem and he will tell you he was introduced to liquor at a shul Kiddush, bar mitzvah or wedding. Those shuls that have done away with serving alcohol in all of its forms, and that even insist on substituting grape juice for wine for Kiddush, are to be commended, as are those individuals, thankfully on the increase, who have stopped serving alcohol at their simchas.
There are many reasons why people turn to alcohol and other drugs. For alcohol, the main reason is plainly and simply its easy availability. Whatever parents, or the community at large, can do to reduce that easy availability and to make it more difficult to obtain alcohol would ameliorate the problem considerably.
Having identified easy availability as one of the primary factors in alcohol abuse, it must be further pointed out that there are other substances that are readily available, if not in synagogues and celebrations, then in every private home. I speak of the wide variety of dangerous substances in the typical medicine chest of most Orthodox Jewish families.
Recently, together with New York State Assemblyman Steven Cymbrowitz, whose district includes much of the Brooklyn neighborhood of Flatbush, I worked with the Orthodox Union to convene a roundtable discussion on the problem of addictions in the Orthodox Jewish community. During this discussion the audience learned of the growing problem of children who abuse medications found in nearly all our homes.
Beginning with over-the-counter drugs such as cough medicines, and moving on to prescription drugs like pain relievers, sedatives, tranquilizers and stimulants, children are exposed to a frightening variety of serious dangers. Our teenagers have learned that certain cough medicines can cause emotional “highs.” They have discovered that pain relievers used by their parents, such as codeine and OxyContin, can give them an even more intense high, and straight from the medicine cabinet at that. Kids know that Xanax and Valium are great tension relievers and easy ways to deal with the stresses of family, school and peers.
These common substances are extremely dangerous and it is time parents and schools woke up to the problem. Education about drugs and alcohol should be part of every curriculum. Parents must learn more about their children and what they are doing and must invoke their unused “parent power” to gain control of this problem. For example, keeping one’s medicine chest locked is one easy intervention.
Purim is just the tip of the iceberg, just one day out of the year. But there is in Purim a lesson that can be helpful with this entire problem. For while it is true that a primary factor in the use of alcohol and drugs by our children is their easy availability, it is also true that another factor is the search for the emotional high. Our kids lead stressful lives, no question about it. It is no wonder they search for ways to feel better, for avenues to elevated moods.
We must teach our children not only to avoid these dangerous substances but also how to deal with life’s challenges and stressors. We must provide in educating them in conflict resolution, problem-solving skills, and healthy ways to relax, express their emotions and talk out their problems.
But we must also teach them how to obtain emotional highs legitimately through intellectual, social, and spiritual methods. This is where the proper celebration of Purim can be a resource and a learning tool.
“For the Jews there was light and gladness, joy and honor” (Esther 8:16).
The lesson of Purim, properly observed, is that the highs of “ora, v’simcha, sasson, v’yekar” do not require artificial stimulants. Rather, they can be achieved through friendship and charity, music and song, Torah study and story, dance and masquerade. Those are the substances that make for a happy Purim. And those are the substances that make for a happy life.
I close by quoting from a chassidic sage of 150 years ago, R’ Yechezkel of Kuzmir. Commenting on the traditional greeting “ah freiliche Purim und ah kasher Pesach” – “A happy Purim and a kosher Passover” – he insisted that it be the reverse.
“Purim,” he said, “will certainly be celebrated happily. We must be sure that our celebratory behaviors are kosher. For Passover we will surely be careful that it is kosher, but must be careful to celebrate happily as well.”
So I wish you all “A kosher Purim and a happy Passover.”
This article originally appeared in The Jewish Press.
Rabbi Tzvi Hersh Weinreb is executive vice president emeritus of the Orthodox Union.