My earliest memories of Purim are joyous, lively ones. Adults clowning in the streets, children scurrying to and fro, festive gatherings in every house and apartment, sounds of merry-making filtering through the neighborhood.

Masquerades and charades, party and song, dance and drink were the order of the day. Yes, drink — especially drink. Drinks of all kinds and sizes. We children didn't partake, of course, but adults sure did enjoy. This day was an anomaly for a religion and society in which drink, and certainly drunkenness, was usually anathema.

One must indeed wonder why Jews celebrate this holiday with such jollity. Jewish law stipulates that all holidays be joyful, but Purim goes beyond the norm. On Purim a Jew is religiously required to "drink until one cannot distinguish between the words 'cursed is Haman' and 'blessed is Mordechai.'"1

Why do we drink on Purim? Why would we want to achieve the state of not distinguishing between the "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordechai"? As with all Jewish questions, the answer is found on four levels — the technical, the symbolic, the homiletic and the mystical.

The Technical Answer: Commemorating the Wine

Jewish holidays commemorate our history's miracles. On Passover we eat matzah to commemorate our ancestors' hasty Exodus from Egypt, which left them had little time to bake bread. On Chanukah we light candles to commemorate the miracle of the small jar of oil that burned for eight days. Similarly on Purim we drink wine to commemorate the salvation of our people, which unfolded over a series of the royal feasts and parties in which, as the Book of Esther relates, wine was a major ingredient and mover of events:

The fall of Queen Vashti which precipitated the rise of Queen Esther occurred at the royal feast at Shushan, with the king in a state of intoxication. Esther was welcomed into the royal family with a series of drinking celebrations. Finally, Esther engineered Haman's downfall in a duo of intimate dinner parties where, once again, wine flowed freely.2

The Symbolic View: Bridging the 'Between'

From the time of Haman's cursed libel until Mordechai succeeded in orchestrating the Jewish people's blessed salvation, our ancestors must have been in a state of intense anxiety. In retrospect they knew that there had been no cause to worry for G‑d had miraculously saved them. If only they could have known earlier what they knew later, they could have avoided tremendous anguish.

One important aspect of the Purim celebration is to reflect upon G‑d's salvation. In times of trouble a Jew must turn to G‑d. Anguish and worry do not solve problems but placing our trust in G‑d, while doing what we can to help ourselves, does.

Here then is the symbolic meaning of being incapable of distinguishing "between 'cursed is Haman' and 'blessed is Mordechai.'" We must learn to put our trust in G‑d and thus avoid the anxiety that dominates the "in-between" state, the interim state between the problem point of "cursed is Haman" and the solution state of "blessed is Mordechai." 3

The Homiletic Perspective: Transcending Dividers Good and Bad

Celebration and joy must lead to unity. Discord develops between friends when one causes harm to the other, or when one becomes jealous of the other's good fortune. These two states are represented by the terms "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordechai."

On Purim one must reach out and forgive long-standing grievances and jealousies. We rejoice with friends and share a glass of wine in the hopes of transcending both the courses and the blessing that divide us, dismissing old grudges and rekindling old friendships.

The Mystical Explanation: Beyond Reason

The Purim miracle defies comprehension. Our ancestors had largely assimilated into the Persian society. They were invited to Persian parties, admitted into Persian circles and perceived themselves as full citizens of official and social Persia.

When the royal edict was issued requiring all Persians to bow before the powerful minister Haman, most Jews were prepared to obey. Mordechai and perhaps a handful of others refused. Enraged, Haman complained to the King who, in turn, issued an edict against the Jewish nation.

Standing with Mordechai endangered not only their hard-earned position in the empire, but also their very lives. Yet not a single Jew betrayed Mordechai and what the Jewish leader represented. When the time came to choose between their eternal commitment to G‑d and their new-found and tenuous friendships, every Jew chose G‑d.

The Jew didn't choose G‑d out of love or reverence. This was an irreverent Jew. The Jew didn't choose G‑d out of scholarship and piety. This was an assimilated Jew. Why did the Jew choose G‑d? Because the Jewish connection to G‑d is infinite and eternal. It transcends reason and understanding. It has weathered powerful storms and trying challenges, and is inexplicably still alive. Our bond with G‑d is compelling because the Jew and G‑d are linked at the essence. When the faced with a challenge the Jew embraces G‑d, regardless of prevailing spiritual conditions.

This transcendent bond is the mystical dimension of drinking wine on Purim. The essence of this holiday is not emotive or intellectual. It is best captured by the soul, not the brain or heart. When wine has dulled the brain, when coherent thought has ceased to function, and the Jew, despite his intoxicated state, remains committed to his religion, he has captured the spirit of Purim.4

In summation, Jews drink wine on Purim to recall the parties of old; to build camaraderie and overcome grudges and jealousies; to emphasize the miraculous salvation which drives away the worries of contemporary challenges; and to experience that uplifting merriment that highlights the essential bond between G‑d and the Jewish people.