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On Purim, Heaven Knows, Anything Goes
Purim is the strangest of Jewish holidays, and Megillat Esther is a strange biblical book.
One of the many peculiar aspects of the holiday is the role of the consumption of alcoholic beverages. There are no less than six drinking parties in the book of Esther, four initiated by King Achashverosh or Queen Vashti and two by Queen Esther. The second party held by the king lasts no less than seven days!
The King is depicted as a debauched fool who has nothing better to do than party, although he has an empire with 127 provinces. Is it any wonder that this soused tyrant is willing to give Haman permission to kill an entire people without even asking who the people are?
While there is certainly an element of satire in the portrayal of the king, it is bitter satire. Megillat Esther is the quintessential story of anti-Semitism in the Diaspora and the precariousness of Jewish existence as a minority. A partying, often drunk, ruler decides the Jews' fate. The day of the genocide is determined by a lottery.
The name of the holiday, Purim (lots), comes from this event. The Jews -- although at first helpless and befuddled -- are not powerless. While the traditional interpretation is that God, working behind the scenes, saves the Jews, the book itself makes no explicit mention of God.
Queen Esther is more than a beauty queen. She is a clever tactician. She uses wine parties to win the king's favor, condemn Haman and save her people. It is as if the book is telling us that in order to survive in the Diaspora, you sometimes have to adapt the mores and customs of the nations hosting you.
This can be a risky and dangerous proposition. It is interesting that it is Esther, a woman, who is empowered to ultimately save the Jews, and not Mordechai, the seemingly powerful courtier. Again, we come to the theme of taking risks when Esther goes to the king to invite him to her first party. To appear before the king without being called was to endanger your life, according to the queen herself.
Alcohol is a traditional part of Purim. The Talmud says people should become so tipsy that they do not know the difference between "Cursed be Haman" and "Blessed be Mordechai." The writer, Calvin Trillin, once said the theme of most Jewish holidays is: "They tried to kill us, we won, let's eat." On Purim, in addition to "let's eat," it's "let's party." While Judaism is not a religion that advocates teetotaling, drunkenness is generally frowned upon. Alcohol loosens inhibitions, and drinking is a risky business; again, note the theme of risk, because it may entail losing control, but on Purim almost anything goes.
We can transgress taboos and make fun of things we normally venerate. Cross-dressing, forbidden by Jewish law, is permitted on Purim when we masquerade. There is a tradition of "Purim Torah," much like Torah learning presided over by a Purim "rabbi." Even in yeshivot, greatly respected teachers may be mocked on Purim. On this day, we are permitted to be what we usually are not.
Purim is a holiday for letting off steam in a religiously sanctioned way and allowing some forbidden urges. Especially during times of persecution, Jews needed a reason to celebrate their survival and enjoy a holiday where the results were the polar reversal of what so often happened in Jewish history.
In gematria (Jewish numerology), "Cursed be Haman" and "Blessed be Mordechai" are numerically the same. The Kabbalists point out that they are also equal to the phrase "emunah peshutah," which means "simple faith." Hopefully, we do not need the alcohol to have faith in the Jewish future and faith that God will provide us with guidance along the way.
Have a joyous Purim and l' chaim!
Rabbi Alan Iser is the religious leader of Congregation Or Shalom in Berwyn.