We Are One: Community, Unity, and the Command, “Be Drunk on Purim”

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Rava said: It is one’s duty levasumei, to be intoxicated on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between arur Haman (cursed be Haman) and baruch Mordechai (blessed be Mordechai). –  Megillah 7b

There is no merit to drunkenness.  Drunkenness, which so often devolves into shameful and inappropriate behavior, is completely at odds with all that it means to live a Jewish life.   How could it be then, that our rabbis (Chazal) who were always so vigilant about encouraging decent and respectful behavior during every moment of our lives would simply remove all boundaries and limits so that one can become so intoxicated on Purim that he cannot tell the difference between arur Haman and barukh Mordechai?

No matter how we interpret this injunction, I cannot imagine that it was Chazal’s intent for Purim to become the showcase for drunkenness and vulgarity.  If that had been Chazal’s intent, they would never have compared Purim to Yom Kippur.  Biur Halacha agrees, forewarning that this obligation did not in any way mean for a Jew to become so intoxicated that he becomes “lowly” and debased in the joy of the holiday.   To engage in frivolity, demeaning and foolish behavior is the antithesis of what halacha, Jewish law, asks of us on Purim, or any other day.  How can simchah, happiness, be consistent with irrational, drunken behavior?  Simchah is a state where we and our souls are uplifted through sanctity, not vulgarity, through the reflection of how high we can reach, not how low we can sink.

But, if indeed the injunction to become so intoxicated that one is incapable of telling the difference between cursing Haman and blessing Mordechai, then what could Chazal have expected of us?

There are those who suggest what is meant is that one should drink to the point of being unable to calculate the gematria (numerical value) of the expressions arur Haman and baruch Mordechai (each sharing the numerical value of 502). Another suggestion is that one should drink only to the point of not being able to recall which came first; the curse on Haman or Mordechai’s rise to be Achashverosh’s viceroy.

Regardless of the “extent” of one’s drunkenness, one must also ask what possible benefit there is to blurring the ability to distinguish between villain and hero.

It is this question that affords us the wisest perspective to evaluate the injunction to Purim intoxication.  For the inability to distinguish between villain and hero speaks most profoundly to the importance in the Jewish community to take away distinctions, for there to be genuine equality to and respect for every member of the community.

Just as G-d is One, so too is the Jewish people.  True happiness for Jews is only possible when there is unity. Absent an embrace of our unity, we will always be diminished by festering anger, angst, and anxiety. We know we should constantly rededicate ourselves to our sacred, nobler natures, yet we too often fall victim to our baser inclinations. As a result, pettiness, jealousy, misunderstanding and disrespect too often define our dealings with our fellows.

There is no greater blessing for Jews than unity, and no greater curse than discord. And yet, despite the clear blessing of unity, we seem so often to be defined by our divisions rather than our common purpose. There is hardly a corner among Jews where acrimony, negativism, and hatred don’t reign supreme; barely a place where we don’t hear Jews defaming others’ spiritual leaders, opinions, and writings! Such factionalism and feuding can lead only to disaster.

How timely then, that Purim, with its joy and lessons of community, is before us! How good it is that the ultimate purpose and focus of this, the happiest of Jewish holidays, and of its central source, Megilat Esther, is to create and reinforce unity and harmony among Jews! How good it is that Purim teaches me to embrace the community I share not only with those I consider friends but also with those far distant who come “stretching out their hand” asking for my understanding and generosity.

For on Purim we must reach out to one another; all who “stretch out their hand” must be responded to. If only for this one, marvelous day, we must get beyond our stubborn refusal to acknowledge others who are “not like us.” If only for this one day, we must reach out to anyone and everyone in the Jewish community.

On Purim, we give gifts. The mitzvah of mishloach manot, that each person give a friend two varieties of food as a present, is based on the pasuk, “U’mishloach manot ish l’reiyhu.” Many commentaries observe that this custom comes to us in direct remembrance of the unity that defined the Jewish people in Shushan, when disaster loomed darkly on the horizon.

If indeed, the deepest purpose of Purim is to “create and reinforce unity and harmony among Jews” as evidenced by mishloach manot, how good is it that Purim teaches us to embrace not only those who are friends but also those who are distant from us?

Anyone can embrace those who are similar.  It is much more challenging and meaningful to share the Purim seuda with those who are different.  Yes, even those who are as different to one another as Haman is to Mordechai!  Certainly if the command is to be unable to distinguish between these two, one must see past any differences that exist within the community so that we all embrace unity.

Ad d’lo yada! Until you can’t distinguish!

Chazal’s intent was not to encourage drunkenness but to facilitate a bond and love between Jews. Stop labeling your “friends” as Mordechai and your “enemies” as Haman! On Purim, we are to become intoxicated… not with wine but with love for our fellow Jew. We are to forget our ill will toward those who are not ‘just like us” and embrace them as fellow Jews. On Purim, we are called on to eliminate the animosity (arur Haman) we have for fellow Jews, and to simultaneously free ourselves of the jealousy (barukh Mordechai) we feel for those who have achieved what we have not. On Purim we are challenged to transform the Hamans in our lives into Mordechais, just as we are commanded in Torah that precedence be given to one’s enemy in the law of unburdening an overladen donkey. “It is preferable to force one’s evil inclination [to not hate a fellow Jew].”

It benefits one’s character to help one’s enemy ahead of assisting a friend. As Novorodok teaches, “In place of resentment (hakpada), one should bestow favors (hatavah).” When someone slights you, respond with a favor, not anger (tachas hakpada – hatava)! This is indeed, ad d’lo yada. Hamans and Mordechais become interchangeable.

Becoming intoxicated on wine is easy. As we know only too well, any fool can do it. Isn’t the greater challenge to become intoxicated with love and compassion? Does not this “intoxication” speak more powerfully to what it means to be a Jew in a Jewish community?

I have always loved the comment that speaks of all the wealthy Jews being somewhat resentful of Haman not for his evil but because he was the reason that they must give endless tzedakah on Purim! They cry out “arur Haman” for it was he who caused for them to have to “shell out” without limit on Purim. And the paupers who can benefit on Purim more than any other day of the year? How they bless and extol baruch Mordechai. No one has ever brought about such a feast for them as good old Mordechai.

The one resents, the other extols out of resentment. Neither is right for they both focus on their differences rather than their similarities. So Chazal suggested that on this day that “one is obligated to become intoxicated” with Purim joy so great that it blots out any association or identification to which of these two groups one belongs – those who have, and those who have not.

On Purim, we belong neither to those who berate Haman or who extol Mordechai. On Purim, we are equal in our life mission to uplift and respect every Jew, without regard to his status or station in life.

For myself, I consider myself fortunate indeed, as I never saw my father drink more than a small “glaizel schnapps”!

Spread the Purim love with the Our Way Purim Power Point Program. It presents the Megillah in a way that includes members of the community with hearing loss, visual impairment, attention deficits, autism, learning disabilities, and so much more.

Rabbi Dr. Eliyahu Safran serves as OU Kosher’s vice president of communications and marketing.

The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.