I’m going to sound like a nerd, but I’m not. Do I have to drink on Purim?
Purim is not about drinking. Purim is about being drunk with sincere happiness.
Traditionally, Jews have celebrated Purim by drinking a little extra wine at their Purim feast with friends, and if that gets you there, then it’s the halachically prescribed way to do the mitzvah. Drinking, according to the sages of the Talmud, can heighten the joy and excitement of Purim. So they declared it actually is a mitzvah—as long as you are confident that your behavior will remain at the high standard expected by the Torah. If you are planning to drive, or you know that drinking can otherwise get you in trouble, then alcohol might as well be pork juice.
So, what’s the whole story with people drinking on Purim? Why is Purim the holiday that’s not just happy, but totally, insanely nuts?
Here’s the story, straight and simple: Two and a half thousand years ago, the Jews in Shushan were delirious with joy. We’re not talking just happiness, but an explosive, spontaneous mass celebration that nobody had ever experienced since Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. So they wanted that for all generations, Jews should experience the same ecstatic celebration that they felt then.
Why were they so insanely happy? Not just because they were finally rid of Haman’s antisemitic thugs who had been harassing them for an entire year. It was deeper than that. It was because they had withstood an awesome challenge and came out with flying colors.
You see, this was the first time Jews had experienced antisemitism as an exiled nation. They had been picked out from all the other conquered peoples of the Persian empire for persecution because they were, well, just different. Any of them could have easily escaped that persecution and threat of annihilation just by deciding to be not different. By saying, hey, I’m just another Persian citizen. Speak Persian. Eat Persian. Do Persian stuff. Worship Persian idols. Simple. Like they say, why beat ’em when you can join ’em?
And why shouldn’t they have joined them? They had already gotten the boot out of the Promised Land. And at that point, the prophet Jeremiah had told them the exile was going to last 70 years. Well, they had counted the 70 years, and everyone figured it was up. And they were still in exile.
Worst of all, only a few years back they had actually started returning and rebuilding in Jerusalem, by royal decree. And then, after just one year, the whole project was axed by a new king’s royal decree. You know what it’s like when you see the light at the end of the tunnel—and then it goes out? Or, what if that light turns out to be a locomotive coming at you at full throttle?
Which is just how things looked then. The entire nation was under threat of termination, extinction and utter annihilation. And G‑d is nowhere to be found. So it would have been a simple, excusable, knee-jerk reaction for those Jews to say, “Look, He abandoned us, so why shouldn’t we abandon Him?”
But they didn’t. Every last Jew stood up and said, “I’m a Jew and I’m proud! Haman and his thugs can do what they want! I was born a Jew, and I’ll die one too!”
As you can imagine, they were fairly stressed out that year. But then comes the big civil war where Haman’s thugs come out in full force, and whaddayaknow, the Jews fight back and are miraculously saved! They see the G‑d of Israel is still on their side! So they break out the champagne and celebrate. Deliriously.
In many ways, Purim was like a second birth for the Jewish People. The first time they were born was at the foot of Mount Sinai, when they heard G‑d telling them, “I’m your G‑d; you are My people. Now, this is what you have to do . . .”
At that time, they didn’t really have much choice. I mean, here’s a G‑d who just liberated you from slavery amidst fantasmic miracles and hi-tech wonders, fed you bread from the sky and water out of a rock. And He’s choosing you for His people, with a promised land of milk and honey to boot. Who could turn down such an offer?
But this time was the real birth, the true bonding of the Jewish people with one another and with their G‑d. Because this time they had every excuse to cop out. And they didn’t. This time was for real.
So, that explains the wild celebration. When the Jewish nation was born the first time around, everyone was also pretty euphoric. They say that at every word G‑d spoke, the souls of those Jews took flight. Special angels had to be appointed to stuff their souls back into their bodies each time. If that was so back then, you can imagine the euphoria when they were born for real this time around. And the Jews of Shushan wanted you to feel that exhilaration, that rapture, that jubilant ecstasy and bliss, every year again and again.
Okay, so how are you going to get there? You’ve got your own worries and concerns around your neck, anchoring you down and nailed into a body on earth. You need to break out. You need to be set free to fly in the ecstatic, egoless joy that they felt then.
Well, in the Talmud, Rava gives this advice for transcending the ego: “A person has to get drunk on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordechai.’” That works for some people, especially those so high on their Jewishness already. Like they say, “Wine goes in and secrets come out.” Some people’s secret self is pretty holy. But the rest of us . . . well, we all know our own secrets.
Fortunately, there are alternatives. Some pretty good ones, too. Keeping in mind that you have to: a) give gifts to two poor people, b) give a food package to one friend, and c) celebrate a Purim feast (with a few l’chaims), here are some enhanced methodologies for an ultimate Purim:
Snap on a bright red nose, a curly purple wig and a lunatic smile. Drop into a retirement home or hospital and make an utter fool of yourself, just to cheer up all the lonely people. Nobody has to ever find out who you are. If you visit the psychiatric ward, just make sure you have a way to get out when you’re done.
Hire a clown and offer to be his sidekick. Go with him to the local children’s hospital. Take along a pack of lollipops. Go wild.
Fill a shopping cart with groceries for a whole family. Drop in unexpected on some jobless immigrant family who can’t pay their rent. Fill up the fridge and write a check for the rent. Leave some toys for the kids.
Dress yourself up along with your kids in full Purim gear. Run around your neighborhood the entire day delivering Purim packages (mishloach manot) to Jewish neighbors who’ve never heard of the whole thing. Continue until you collapse on the couch at the end of the day. Do this two years in a row, and you will transform your neighborhood.
I’ll bet, if you put your mind to it, you can think of way more. Or maybe don’t use your mind. On occasions like this, you might get further losing your mind a little. All in a good way.