SALT - Motzaei Shabbat - Chag Purim, March 11, 2017

  • Rav David Silverberg

            One of the famous and startling rabbinic statements about the Purim celebration is the Gemara’s ruling in Masekhet Megilla (7b), “A person is obligated to become inebriated on Purim until he cannot distinguish between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordekhai’.”  Intoxication is strongly frowned upon by Torah tradition, and thus many writers struggled to explain how it could be that on Purim Halakha actually requires one to become inebriated.  Why would the Gemara establish an obligation on Purim to drink until one’s rational faculties are impaired?

            Among the many explanations offered appears in Rav Aryeh Tzvi’s Frommer’s Eretz Tzvi – Moadim (p. 216).  Rav Frommer draws our attention to another famous Talmudic passage regarding Purim, namely, the Gemara’s comment in Masekhet Shabbat (88b) that after the Purim miracle, the Jews reaffirmed their formal acceptance of the Torah.  The Gemara’s discussion begins with the famous description of how God suspended Mount Sinai over Benei Yisrael at the time the Torah was given, threatening to kill them if they failed to accept it.  Accordingly, the Gemara states, the Jewish Nation could have, in principle, later rescinded their pledge to obey Torah law, by claiming that their original commitment was declared under coercion.  Since the acceptance of the Torah was forced, it cannot be considered legally binding.  The Gemara comments that this was theoretically true until the aftermath of the Purim miracle, at which time the Jews reaffirmed their acceptance of the Torah – “Hadar kibluha bi-ymei Achashveirosh.”  Although the initial acceptance was coerced, and thus could have potentially been abrogated, the Jews in the times of Achashveirosh wholeheartedly reaffirmed their commitment without any conditions or loopholes.  Awakened by the great miracle they had just experienced, the Jews formally declared their devotion to Torah without coercion, out of pure, genuine love of God.

            Rav Frommer explains the nature of Jews’ reaffirmation of their commitment by noting the Rambam’s famous comments in Hilkhot Geirushin (2:20) that the true, inner desire of every Jew is to fulfill God’s will.  While it often seems as though we are naturally disinclined to submit to Torah authority, and our basic instincts pull us away from the proper mode of conduct, the Rambam asserted that to the contrary, our innermost desire is to devotedly serve God, and our sinful inclinations cause us to go against this inner drive.  The kabbalat ha-Torah pronounced at the time of the Purim miracle, Rav Frommer explains, was a return to that innermost element in the Jews’ souls, the hidden desire deep inside their beings that is naturally and unconditionally committed to God.  The extraordinary events they experienced at that time ignited that inner spark, and caused them to passionately embrace the Torah irrespective of the technical loophole that could have been used to absolve themselves of their commitment.  The Purim miracle awakened that inner drive within the soul, that innermost desire to live in the devoted service of God, and thus the Jews of the time announced their commitment to Torah that did not depend on any legal technicalities.

            On this basis, Rav Frommer explains the requirement to (somewhat) impair our rational faculties through intoxication on Purim.  We reenact our ancestors’ kabbalat ha-Torah by deactivating our minds and returning to our innermost selves, the innermost recesses of our souls, the true essence of our beings, which desires to cling to the Almighty.  By disengaging the mind, we are able to reveal our essence, and thereby reaffirm our commitment to Torah with pure sincerity and passion.  And thus the Zohar compares Purim to Yom Kippur, noting that the term “Yom Kippurim” can be read as “Yom ke-Purim” – “the day like Purim.”  Rav Frommer explains that just as on Yom Kippur the kohen gadol enters the kodesh ha-kodashim, the innermost sanctum of the Beit Ha-mikdash, the holiest site on earth, on Purim we enter our personal “kodesh ha-kodashim,” the innermost sanctum of our souls, which is the holiest place of our beings.  We reawaken that inner, instinctive desire for closeness with our Creator, and recognize that all our other drives and desires are, as the Rambam writes, external to our true selves.  Like our ancestors in Persia, we acknowledge and affirm that while we are often led astray by societal pressures and influences or our own sinful inclinations, our true desire is to faithfully serve the Almighty and live with unbridled and passion devotion to His word.