Purim is one of the most, if not the most, joyous and fun Jewish holidays. While it may not pack the house like the High Holy Days, it is a celebration full of laughter, humor, and tomfoolery. We play games at carnivals, dress in costumes and pretend to be someone else, scream at the top of our lungs drowning out the name of evil and hate, and eat hamantaschen, triangle shaped poppy seed- and fruit-filled cookies. Unfortunately though, for many Purim has become an excuse to drink alcohol.
In the Babylonian Talmud (Tractate Megillah 7b) we learn:
Rava said: It is one’s duty to drink on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between ‘Cursed be Haman’ and ‘Blessed be Mordecai.’
The initial read of the Talmud suggests that one should get so drunk that he should not be able to tell the difference between good and bad. With this rabbinic mandate in mind, many Purim celebrations include glasses of wine, bottles of beer, and shots of vodka. For many in our community, alcohol will be present at our Purim celebrations.
I am not opposed to the presence of alcohol on Purim. In fact, using alcohol as a way to celebrate is a key part of many of our holiday celebrations and rituals. We make kiddush over a glass of wine (or grape juice). We have four cups of wine at the Passover seder. Wine is often the agent for sanctification during many lifecycle events, including a brit milah ceremony and a Jewish wedding. The sweetness of the fruit of the vine allows us to appreciate the sweetness of the sacred moment. I have no problem with that.
What I take issue with is when one misinterprets rabbinic literature and uses it as an excuse for drunken debauchery. Purim is not an excuse to drink excessively. Drinking to the point of not knowing the difference between Mordecai and Haman, between good and evil, and thus, drinking to the point of making bad decisions and poor choices, is not a way to celebrate God’s sanctity. Rather, it is a desecration of God’s majesty. Judaism cannot and should not be an excuse to “party hard.” There is nothing holy about that!
Additionally, we must look inward at ourselves as a community to see how our actions reflect our mission. One of the missions of the Jacksonville Jewish Center, spearheaded by the Keruv Task Force, is to be an inclusive community for all those who walk through our doors. Our goal is to be a spiritual center where all those in our community can find support. When it comes to alcoholism and addiction in the Jewish community, too many are in disbelief and denial. However, addiction is just as big of a concern in the Jewish community as it is throughout the country. If our goal is to embrace all members of our community as they are, then we cannot put up barriers to entry. Making alcohol a central part of our ritual and suggesting that the act of drinking is a religious act is a barrier to entry for all those in our community who suffer from addiction.
How do we as a community embrace the holiday celebration without overemphasizing the celebration? It begins with emphasizing the truly sacred moments of the holiday: coming together as community to appreciate the miracles in our lives. On Purim, we thank God for the miracles that happened in Shushan, as well as the everyday miracles in our lives today. We celebrate God’s presence in this world and how we act as God’s messengers. While God’s name is not mentioned a single time in the Book of Esther, Esther acts as God’s messenger, standing up for her own rights as well as the rights of those around her. This is what we celebrate on Purim. If one drinks too much, then one may not appreciate those miracles all around us. To appreciate those miracles around us is to appreciate life. That way, next time we say L’Chaim, we can really mean it.
– Rabbi Jesse M. Olitzky
This blog post was originally printed in the March 2014 edition of the Jacksonville Jewish Center’s Quarterly Magazine, Center Pieces. The entire publication can be viewed here.