This article first appeared in United Synagogue’s Daf Hashavua
Purim ! At last – a chance to make a lot of noise in shul, wear fancy dress and get drunk. How wonderful: all the things that are frowned on the rest of the year suddenly become acceptable! But surely this is not what the rabbis intended when they instituted Purim as a celebration of the downfall of Haman and the overturning of his plans to wipe out the Jewish people “young and old, infants and women on one day”?
There is a medrash, which describes Haman visiting Achashverosh to set his evil plot in motion. He complains about a particular people, scattered across the empire, saying that they spend all their time eating and drinking, regularly celebrating Shabbat or yom tov. God responds to this accusation, saying “You wicked man, who begrudges them their festivals! I will overthrow you and add yet another festival to celebrate your downfall.” Haman’s complaint is not just a case of playground spite, but rather a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Jewish connection with the physical world. Reb Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin comments on this, tracing its roots back to the serpent in the Garden of Eden. He points out that it is possible to use physical pleasure as a means of achieving closeness with God, as we do when we celebrate Shabbat with tasty meals, combined with divrei Torah and zemirot.
But if on Purim we are taking the physical and using it to become closer to God, why the need to use it to excess and become drunk? Perhaps this story answers the question. A man is travelling across the country, with a driver. They stop for a break at an inn, where the man meets his long-lost best friend from childhood. They are delighted to see each other, but just as they settle down to catch up, the driver says it is time to leave. The man buys the driver a drink, and then another drink and then ensconces him with a bottle of whisky, enabling the two friends to spend the whole night talking and enjoying each other’s company. In the morning, when the driver has sobered up, the friends are able to part, having re-established their connection. The two friends represent God and a person’s soul, whose close connection with each other is sometimes hampered by the driver – the body. By taking the body out of action, the soul is able to achieve a truly close connection with God. There are two ways of doing this – by ignoring the body’s needs, as on Yom Kippur, or by anaesthetising the body, as on Purim. It is no coincidence that the two days are often linked – with Yom Kippurim described as Yom K’Purim, a day like Purim. Both days, at opposite ends of the physical spectrum, offer unparalleled opportunities for closeness with God and revealing one’s inner beauty. This is a true celebration of the victory over Haman and his worldview.