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NO, PURIM IS NOT A FREE-FOR-ALL





Mishenichnas Adar marbim besimhah – When Adar comes, we increase our joy.”

The onset of the month of Adar and the preparations for Purim call upon us to – among other things – understand what true joy is, and to dispel a dangerous, widespread misconception concerning the role of drinking on Purim.

Unfortunately, too many people view Purim as a day of hefker – of lawlessness and unrestrained levity, when some of the strictest taboos of religious life suddenly fall by the wayside.  Each year – and it pains me to write this – we see people engage in some of the worst kind of conduct guised as religious observance.  Smoking, full intoxication, dangerous behavior, pranks and immodesty are some of the unacceptable “observances” that have somehow become synonymous with the celebration of the holy day of Purim.  While halachah indeed requires drinking and festivity on Purim, and perhaps even mild inebriation, there is absolutely no basis whatsoever for bringing ourselves to a mindless, drunken stupor, and certainly not for doing things which endanger ourselves or others, or that compromise basic foundations of Jewish life such as self-discipline, human dignity, and modesty.

Such conduct is not only inappropriate – but also represents the polar opposite of true joy, the kind of joy we are to experience on Purim and even throughout the year.

Losing Our Humanity

There are several ways to prove this from the words of our great sages.

The Rambam, in his famous Guide for the Perplexed, develops the idea that the feature which distinguishes the human being from other living creatures is the intellect.  As such, he writes, intoxication, which is, essentially, the deactivation of the human intellect, is the gravest violation a person can commit.  A person can taint his soul through sin, but he still retains his humanity.  When one gets drunk, he ceases to be human; he falls to the level of an animal.  The Rambam goes so far as to say that if a person is unclothed and performing his bodily functions on the floor, this condition is preferable to intoxication.  In the former case, the person needs simply to be told that this conduct is inappropriate, and he will, in all likelihood, desist.  But if a person is drunk, he is temporarily incapable of processing information and understanding anything.  Telling him to stop acting inappropriately would be like telling a monkey to act in a dignified manner.  It will have no effect.  And thus intoxication is worse than even the lowest depths of depraved behavior, because it does not allow the person the ability to change course.

Is it possible that there is a mitzvah to divest ourselves of our humanity, and become an animal, for even a single day? 

Secondly, Rav Haim Vital (1542-1620), the famed disciple of the Arizal (1534-1572), cited his great mentor as testifying that he achieved his great spiritual heights specifically because of his simhah – the genuine joy which he experienced.  True joy is indispensable to a spiritual life.  This testimony of the Arizal must affect the way we understand the nature of “joy” which Judaism promotes.  Can we imagine for a moment the Arizal reaching spiritual greatness by drinking himself into a drunken stupor?  Let us picture in our minds the image of a drunkard and ask ourselves, is this the kind of simhah that propelled the Arizal to his towering stature of piety?  Did he acquire profound knowledge of Kabbalah by getting drunk?  I think it is obvious that this is not the kind of joy that the Arizal experienced, and thus is not the kind of joy which we are to experience on Purim.

What, then, does it mean to “rejoice”?  If somebody finds drinking and merrymaking enjoyable, why is this not the kind of simhah which halachah requires on Purim?

The Joy of Growth

Rav Shimshon Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) asserted that the root s.m.h. – “joy” – is etymologically related to the verb tz.m.h. – “grow.”  The reason, he explained, is that true joy is achieved through growth and achievement.  We feel the most gratified and content when we feel accomplished, when we feel that our time is not being wasted, and is rather being used for meaningful and productive activity.  We feel happy and enthusiastic when we “grow” something, when we produce and achieve.

Contemporary culture teaches us just the opposite.  It tells us that the ultimate joy is being able to stay in bed or lie on the beach.  We are made to believe that joy can be found not in our daily work routine, but in exotic vacations, where we are free from responsibility and remain idle.  And in our culture, people want to retire as soon as it is financially feasible so they can “enjoy” life instead of working.

But this is not what our tradition teaches us.  Inactivity and lack of productivity breed boredom, frustration and depression.  Hard work and achievement bring feelings of satisfaction and joy.  This is not to say that vacations should be discouraged.  I take occasional vacations, as do many other rabbis.  Vacations can prove vital for growth, enabling us to rest and recharge.  As long as vacations are viewed in this light – as helping to facilitate further growth and accomplishment – they are very valuable.  But inactivity and unproductivity do not, in and of themselves, bring a person joy.

Imagine one man who hits the “snooze” alarm five times before getting out of bed in the morning, and, realizing he is running very late, he quickly throws on some clothes, grabs a quick bite, and begrudgingly heads off the work.  Another wakes up early for his daily Daf Yomi class, prays Shaharit with the minyan, and then stays for the rabbi’s class after the service.  He then walks out and heads out to work.  Which of these two men is in better spirits?  All other factors being equal, I’d say the latter feels far more gratified and upbeat, even though he slept some two hours less than the former.  It’s only 9am, but he’s already had an accomplished day.  He spoke with his Creator, and increased his knowledge of Torah.  He experiences the joy of growth, of productivity, of having accomplished something worthwhile, while the other is just getting started as he trudges along to the office.

This is true of children, as well.  A child who receives everything he wants without effort will not be happy.  He will experience a temporary rush of excitement each time he is given a new gift, but this feeling quickly fades.  The happy child is one who is given age-appropriate challenges and tasks, who is encouraged to take on projects, work hard, and accomplish, so he can experience true joy – the joy of growth and achievement.

At least according to one opinion, this is why Adar is a time of special joy.  Commenting on the Gemara’s ruling that we increase our joy when Adar comes, Rashi explains that the beginning of Adar marks the onset of the season of Purim and Pesach.  From the perspective of our society, we might have thought that the flurry of mitzvah activity during this season should trigger feelings of dread and angst.  With all the preparations for, and special mitzvot of, Purim and Pesach, there’s a lot going on during this period, and a lot for us to do and take care of.  There’s a great deal of work entailed.  This is a time for hard work.  And this is precisely why it’s a time for joy.  True joy comes from hard work and achievement, and this is the period on the Jewish calendar when we have lots of mitzvot to tend to and a lot to accomplish.  Therefore, this is a time of joy.

Clearly, then, the joy of Purim is not the “joy” of intoxication.  It is the joy of growth and achievement through the performance of mitzvot.

Escapism and the Illusion of Joy

The essential purpose of Adar is to lead us away from illusionary joy, so we can experience genuine joy.

The scholars of Kabbalah teach us that the divine Name of Havayah – spelled yod, then heh, followed by vav and heh – can be configured in 12 different ways by rearranging the letters, and each configuration corresponds to one of the 12 months.  The configuration that corresponds to the month of Adar is heh, heh, yod, vav.  The rabbis teach that this configuration is alluded to in the Torah, specifically, in Yaakov’s deathbed blessing to his fourth son, Yehudah (Beresheet 49:11).  Prophetically foreseeing the exceptional quality of the vines in Yehuda’s territory in the Land of Israel, Yaakov proclaims, “Oseri lagefen iroh velasorekah beni atono” – people will be able to tie their animals to grapevines.  Most grapevines are flimsy, and so nobody would ever think to restrain their animals by tying them to a vine.  But the region of Judea would produce uniquely sturdy vines, which would produce especially high quality wine, and animals could be tied to these vines. 

The final letters of the words “iroh velasorekah beni atono” are heh, heh, yod, vav – the sequence of letters which represents the month of Adar.  And it is thus here where the Torah alludes to this month.

The question is obvious: what does this blessing to Yehuda have to do with Adar?

The commentators explain that the phrase “oseri lagefen iroh” may be read to mean, “Wine for awakening is forbidden.”  It is forbidden to rely on wine, on intoxication, for spiritual “awakening.”  If a person must resort to wine or other stimulant agents to feel religious devotion, then he does not really feel religious devotion.  His feeling is artificial.  Our devotion to Gd must be real and authentic, not an emotion induced by alcohol. 

Ironically, then, Adar is specifically not about drinking.  It is about authentic joy, the kind of joy that we do not need wine in order to experience.  Yes, we drink on Purim as part of our celebration.  But the special joy of Adar and of Purim has to be real and genuine.

The Torah commands in the Book of Shemot (34:17), “Eloheh masechah lo ta’aseh lach” (literally, “Do not make for yourselves graven images as gods”).  The word masechah means “mask,” and thus the Torah here warns against serving Gd with a “mask” – superficially, by temporarily becoming somebody other than our true selves, such as through intoxication.  On Purim we drink to enhance our joy, not to induce our joy.  Because when we induce joy through alcohol, this is not joy – it is a “mask,” an illusion of joy.

Why do people become drunk?  What leads people to knowingly bring themselves into a drunken stupor?  The answer is clear: they want to escape.  They have a problem, they find themselves in a very difficult or stressful situation, and so they run away from it by drinking.  Rather than address the issue and try to improve the situation, they escape. 

The Mishna in Pirkeh Avot warns of three things that “motzi’in et ha’adam min ha’olam – remove a person from this world.”  They are jealousy, lust and honor.  The plain meaning of the Mishna is that these things are harmful and destructive.  On a deeper level, however, the Mishna is warning that these are ways through which people try to “leave the world,” to escape from the pressures and disappointments of life.  They pursue money and prestige, and indulge in pleasures, in order to experience joy.  But true joy is not achieved by escaping from life.  We experience joy by working to grow and improve, one step at a time.  Joy does not come easily, by drinking a few shots of whiskey.  It comes through hard work, which leads us to real satisfaction.  This is the kind of joy we are to experience throughout the year, and especially during Adar.

Joy Through Gratitude

The theme of Adar is also alluded to in the Nishmat prayer, which we recite each week, on Shabbat morning.  In this prayer, we speak about our immeasurable debt of gratitude to Gd for all His has done to us.  We emphasize all the blessings Gd bestows upon us that we take for granted – our very existence, our functioning bodies, our livelihood, and so on.  And we proclaim that each and every part of our beings, every limb, organ and vein, as well as our souls, bear an obligation to give praise to Gd: “Hen hem yodu viyvarechu…”  The first letters of these words are heh, heh, yod, vav – and thus represent another powerful allusion to the month of Adar.

One of the most important ways of experiencing true joy – besides growth and achievement, as discussed at length above – is by feeling genuine gratitude, by recognizing Gd’s involvement in our lives and all that He has done and does for us.  When we focus on our countless blessings, rather than dwell upon the inevitable handful of problems that every person in this world, without exception, has, we are able to experience joy.  When we reflect upon the words of the Nishmat prayer, and think of all that Gd does for us, we feel happy and content.

Rav Avigdor Miller, zt”l, would occasionally be seen peering at the display window of a local pharmacy.  When he was asked about this practice, he explained that if the pharmacy was advertising medicines in its display window, it must be that many people have conditions that require these medications.  And so he would look carefully at each one, reading the description to learn what condition it treats, so he could thank Gd that he does not suffer from that condition.  By learning about all the different conditions that require treatment, he became mindful of his debt of gratitude to Gd.

This is a vital path to true joy – recognizing how much we have to be thankful for.

It has been said that the Hebrew word “Adar” may be read an acrostic representing the words “en davar ra – There is nothing bad.”  Adar, the month of special joy, is the time to see only the good in our lives and in the world.  It is the time to stop viewing our family members, our neighbors, our jobs, our bank account and portfolio, and everything else with negativity.  It is the time to recognize that “en davar ra,” that the problems we have in our lives are trivial and insignificant in relation to all the goodness we are blessed with.  “Mishenichnas Adar marbim besimhah.”  When “Adar” comes, when we gain the perspective of “en davar ra,” then our joy increases exponentially.  Our lives become so much happier and more fulfilling.

And thus the Purim celebration is not, as too many people mistakenly believe, a free-for-all, a time to break free from the ordinary constraints of dignified behavior.  The joy of Purim is to be real – and real joy is achieved by working to grow and achieve, and by recognizing all that is good and feeling grateful.  This will not happen by shutting off our minds with alcohol.  To the contrary, it will happen through serious reflection and hard work.

May we and all Am Yisrael experience true joy during this month of Adar, the joy of personal growth, the joy of seeing only the good in other people, and the joy of seeing Gd’s countless blessings in our lives, and may this joy stay with us beyond Purim, throughout the entire year and throughout our entire lives, Amen.