A large party with a lot of food, laughter, and fun. Plenty of alcohol to go around. People dressed in all sorts of costumes sprawled out over the floor in a drunken stupor. A snapshot of fraternity life on the weekends?
A large party with a lot of food, laughter, and fun. Plenty of alcohol to go around. People dressed in all sorts of costumes sprawled out over the floor in a drunken stupor. A snapshot of fraternity life on the weekends? Possibly. A typical Jewish home on Purim? Just as likely. Possibly the most anticipated festival on the Jewish calendar, Purim is probably the most misunderstood as well.
An examination of some of the main components of this festival raise some tremendous difficulties. Case in point: The message of the Torah is clear every move a Jew makes must be thought out; every action is accounted for. A Jew must always be in control of his actions and movements. Furthermore, the intellect is our primary tool for seeking and establishing a relationship with Hashem. Yet on Purim, it would seem that we are not only permitted, but commanded to abandon all senses and reason in a downpour of wine. How can this be?
Another difficulty: Certainly a Jew may and should always be a happy and joyous person. However, just as one must avoid excessive sorrow and somber, so too one's cheer must always be tempered. Extreme levity and frivolity cause one to ignore one's Divine responsibilities. Purim, however, seems not only to permit such behavior, but encourages it as well. Is Purim simply a day to laugh and joke and get a little drunk? How does Purim contribute to our Divine service of Hashem? We will return to these questions later.
The essence and purpose of evil has troubled both philosophers and laymen alike since the dawn of time. While many details will forever remain concealed from us humans, our sages, over many generations, have offered some insights and clues to help us deal with the vexing question of evil. After the completion of the creation of the world, the Torah tells us that Hashem inspected all His creations and concluded that all was "very good" (Genesis 1:31). The Midrash comments that this phrase "very good" refers to the evil inclination. Shocking! How can anything "evil" be labeled not just good, but "very" good? Isn't it a contradiction in terms?
The sages of the Midrash have provided for us an invaluable insight into the purpose of evil. G-d is all good and deals with His creations only in a beneficial manner. Hashem wishes to bestow only the greatest pleasures and delights on His creations. To do so, He could have created a world absent of any evil or free will, where we would simply bask in His glory enjoying His gifts to Mankind. However, the pleasure of such an existence would be lacking a significant aspect: We would not have earned it. The pleasures and bliss of such a world would be merely a gift from Hashem. The joy and satisfaction derived from a gift are quite limited. Hashem wants us to be able to experience to the highest degree the goodness He has to offer. The ultimate pleasure can only be appreciated when we have earned such a reward.
Therefore, Hashem created the existence of evil in humans, who possess the free will to either succumb to evil or negate and abandon it. Hashem wants us to choose good, to expose evil and annihilate it. Such a task consumes Man for an entire lifetime and even then he can only hope he has fulfilled his duties. Man is constantly allured and seduced by his evil inclination, and every time he succeeds in subduing his evil urges he earns for himself a reward greater than anything he can imagine, to be payable in the World to Come. With the creation of evil, the concept of Man working for his reward became possible. Now Man can truly experience G-d's goodness to a degree far greater than had evil not been created. Only because of evil can Man totally and completely link himself to Hashem. Thus, on a deeper level, all evil is really good very good as it allows us to fully appreciate our reward and experience the true sensation of the bliss of the World to Come.
In addition, our sages tell us that in the future we will be shown by Hashem how all the evil and suffering experienced by Mankind, in truth, contributed to the ultimate benefit of the universe and its inhabitants. However, the entire master plan will only be understood later. Now, in our present state, evil appears as exactly that evil. We cannot appreciate how the evils which affect us and those around us are in fact the source of tremendous good. Only if we were to be transported to a deeper level of existence would we be shown how all evil is really for our own good. Normally, these paths of insight are closed to us. However, at certain select points in history, Hashem opens our eyes to gain a peek at this baffling world where evil is really beneficial.
Purim was one of those times. In fact, no other singular episode in history highlights this deeper level of reality than Purim. Taken as a whole, the entire episode may not arouse much curiosity. However, a closer examination of the details of the story reveal a consistent, and somewhat eerie, pattern of events. Not just did a bad situation turn out alright for the Jews, but the very reasons and causes that appeared to spell doom and destruction for the Jewish people, in the end turned out to be the very causes of their rescue and victory. One need only cite a few examples from Megillat Esther to support our claim:
1) Esther was taken forcefully as the queen of King Achashverush. Undoubtedly, at the time, Esther's abduction appeared to be disastrous not only for Esther and Mordechai, but for the entire Jewish people. That a young Jewish woman should be taken against her will to be the wife of a wicked non-Jewish king can only be described as a tragedy for the Jewish people. However, through this "calamity," the Jews were saved from Haman's evil plot. It was only because of Esther's royal position and favor with the king that she was able to convince him to annul Haman's decree.
2) Achashverush neglected to reward Mordechai for saving his life. At the time, the king's oversight must have appeared devastating to the Jewish people. After all, Mordechai could have received some favored post in the king's palace. Instead, he received nothing; or so it seemed. Several years later, Achashverush recalled the incident, just as Haman appeared in the king's courtyard. As a result, Haman was forced to parade Mordechai in front of the whole town. Haman's degradation was the first in a series of tragic events for Haman, which eventually led to his death. The downfall would have never begun had Achashverush rewarded Mordechai immediately.
3) The very tree which Haman had reserved for Mordechai, in the end, became Haman's downfall.
4) The very day on the Jewish calendar, the 13th of the Hebrew month of Adar which was to mark the decimation and destruction of the Jewish people, instead became the day on which the Jewish people destroyed their enemies.
Megillat Esther is full of such instances. One cannot help but walk away from the entire episode of Purim and be startled, even shocked, by the turnabout of circumstances and events. The story of Purim clouds the distinction between good and bad. Bad may not be bad; it may be good. What appeared to be bad was really good. On Purim, we are offered an unmistakable insight into that deep level of existence where everything even evil is good.
We are now prepared to reexamine those troubling practices encouraged on Purim. First, let us look at the least troubling practice wearing costumes and masks. As mentioned, on Purim we uncover and expose a deeper more authentic reality where evil is really good; that the world we know and see is merely a mask, a facade. Behind the mask lies the actual truth. The wearing of costumes and masks helps demonstrate this idea. Things are not necessarily as they seem. The face I see may really be a deception. Although I only see the mask and assume that it is the person's true identity, I am mistaken. The mask merely covers the person's actual identity. Remove the mask, and the deeper, more authentic, level of reality is discovered.
Now let us turn to the custom of excessive rejoicing and levity. On Purim, we are joyous and full of laughter. Let us take a closer look at laughter. What is the underlying principle of laughter? Why do we laugh? Laughter is caused by something surprising and unexpected. A joke is a story line that appears to be headed in a certain direction until the punch line, when we discover something totally different than we expected. We react to this abrupt change in direction by laughing. Similarly, daily events in our own lives which take a sudden turn, cause us to laugh. Interestingly, even when a favorable situation suddenly takes a turn for the worse, we tend to chuckle a bit at our plight.
On Purim, we cannot help but respond to our insights into the deeper level of existence by laughing. All of our pre-conceived notions have been shattered. We thought all along that evil was evil and good was good, and never the twain shall meet. Now we discover that in truth, evil is really good. Our senses are astonished. Our gut reaction is simply to laugh a lot at the unexpected turn of events.
Finally, let us focus on probably the most troubling aspect of Purim the mitzvah to inebriate ourselves. On Purim we desire to remove the layer of reality we now experience, to dig a little deeper to find the ultimate truth. We would like to be able to achieve a state where we can escape our pre-conceived notions of reality, where we can challenge the truths we now accept as axiomatic. By drinking to the point of inebriation, we can strip away our outer level of consciousness. At that point, reality as we know it becomes a little confusing and blurry. Our minds are now receptive to new ideas, ideas that we would have rejected immediately in a sober state. We now can accept that perhaps things are not as they seem.
The Talmud (Tractate Megillah 7b) declares that one should imbibe himself to the point where he cannot understand the difference between "cursed be Haman," and "blessed be Mordechai." Maybe Haman, the embodiment of evil, is not really evil. Maybe he is not really so different from Mordechai, the personification of good. Maybe they are both the same. We would never fathom such a ludicrous idea in a fully conscience state. Only with the effects of alcohol can we begin to fathom such a reality, where evil is really good. With this fresh and new understanding of Purim, we are now more ready than ever to enter the festival on the right foot.
The Arizal, a great 16th century kabbalist, tells us that on Purim we have the potential to rise to the same spiritual heights as Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year. However, a word of caution is in order. Purim is an extremely potent festival. Used in the proper way, Purim can allow us to enter deeper, more authentic worlds of existence and reality. If used in an inappropriate manner, however, Purim can have a devastating effect. Drinking, frivolity, and partying in an improper context can wreak havoc and devastation on our soul and our relationship with Hashem. Each one of us should carefully examine our motives and goals before entering this awesome day. Handle with care.
Yoel Spotts, a native Atlantan, is a member of the Ner Israel Rabbinical College Kollel in Baltimore.
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