Mar 19, 2008

Purim 5768: Moderate Excess

Rabbi Menachem Creditor

Happy Adar! Li
ght-heartedness, fun, and friendship are in the air. It is nice to stop taking ourselves too seriously and just enjoy ourselves.

A wonderful explanation of Purim by Lois Goldrich can be found here and is pasted below for quick reference. A powerful new tradition, brought to my attention by friend and teacher Marcia Brooks, for drowning out Haman's and Zeresh's names is to bring to shul boxes of pasta to use as graggers, shaking them for noise, and donating them once the Megillah is completed.

One of the customs of Purim, deeply connected to the sense of joy and relief of the Megillah's message of Jewish survival in the world, is to drink. The recent trends of childhood alcoholism in our world, documented at length by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (and found
here), lead me to reflect on how we conduct ourselves as adults, and in front of our children. I enjoyed the etrog schnapps on Simchat Torah, and believe that drinking in moderation, defined in detail here and roughly defined as either 12 ounces of beer, five ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor can be a fun thing to share with others. I am concerned, however, with the possibilities of excess in the name of a mitzvah.

The Talmud states that "One is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until one cannot distinguish between "cursed is Haman" and "blessed is Mordechai" (Megillah 7b). What might that mean?

  • Some have pointed to the exactly equal numerical value (gematria) of the two phrases as an instruction to recognize that delineating bad from good shouldn't seem easy when reading the Megillah. While the cause and characters shift roles, violence is one of the constants in Megillat Esther.
  • Some have suggested that it is impossible to drink to the point at which one could not distinguish Mordechai and Haman and that the Mitzvah of Purim is to go to sleep. Through the replenishing act of sleeping and gaining the strength Haman would have destroyed, we experience dreams in which the world of stark contrasts and potential threats fade and vision begins.
There are those, of course who believe that drinking in severe excess is a mitzvah. And while we share vibrant and diverse communities, there is simply not room for destructive behavior in our sense of tradition. Joy is the mitzvah, not self-destruction. Jewish communities are not immune to alcoholism. JACS: Jewish Alcoholics, Chemically Dependent Persons, and Significant Others is demonstrative of our need to remain aware and supportive of healthy decision making in our communities.

Especially in the presence of children, I ask us to demonstrate that losing ourselves in joy is something that can be found healthily. Purim is a chance for "Nafoch Hu", to turn everything upside-down. Frowns into smiles. Despair into incredible joy.

We celebrate the mitzvot of Reading and Hearing the Megillah, of Mishloach Manot (sharing food with friends and neighbors -especially people we don't typically reach out to), of Matanot La'Evyonim (gifts for those in need), and of Se'udat Purim (the festive meal on Purim Day). We dress in masks, resembling the Megillah in which God is absent from the text but hidden in the meaning.

May the masks we wear this Purim bring out the best in each of us!

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