The Gemara in Maseches Megilla (7b) establishes the famous halakha that “a person is obligated to become inebriated on Purim until he does not know the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordekhai’.” While this is the prevalent and generally accepted translation of the Gemara’s remark, the Nimukei Yosef offers a different interpretation, translating the word “li-bsumei” not as intoxication, but rather as merriment and levity. In his view, the Gemara here establishes a halakhic requirement to, in his words, “to speak words of humor until people think one does not know the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordekhai’.” According to the Nimukei Yosef, then, we are required not to become inebriated, but rather to engage in humor and frivolity.
We might ask why the Gemara would introduce this requirement in such a fashion, stating that we must act in a way that makes us seem incapable of distinguishing between Haman’s evil and Mordekhai’s piety. Why is this the yardstick that determines the required extent of our merriment on Purim?
It might be suggested that the Nimukei Yosef’s understanding of the Gemara forms a basis for the widespread – and surprising – custom to lower our standards of reverence on Purim. One day a year, we permit congregants and students to jokingly imitate their rabbis, and many scholars deliver silly Torah discourses, as though making light of our sacred Torah. Even synagogues and study halls are occasionally scenes of merriment, with humorous signs and jokes posted on the walls. Possibly, this practice is rooted in the Nimukei Yosef’s understanding of the obligation to make jokes on Purim in a manner that blurs the distinction “between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordekhai’.” We engage in hearty, good-natured humor even about serious religious matters and distinguished rabbinic figures to fulfill this obligation to appear as though we do not recognize their unique stature of importance. (Of course, caution must be taken to ensure that this is done in good taste and does not result in the profaning of Torah.)
If so, then we need to address the question of why this is acceptable, let alone encouraged. What purpose can possibly be served by lowering our standards – if only slightly – of reverence and esteem for matters of kedusha and Torah figures?
Rashi, in his commentary to Parashat Ki-Teitzei (Devarim 25:18), cites the Midrash which describes how Amalek set out to attack to Benei Yisrael for the specific purpose of demonstrating their vulnerability. After the spectacular events of the Exodus and the splitting of the sea, Benei Yisrael were feared and held in high esteem among the nations of the world. Amalek rejected the notion that Benei Yisrael was somehow special, and set out to prove its point by exposing their vulnerability through a surprise military attack. As many writers have noted, Amalek is associated with cynicism and negativity, with denying the significance and positive attributes of people and things. For Amalek, nothing is important, meaningful or worthy of admiration. This tradition was carried through Haman, a scion of Amalek, who viewed the Jews with disdain and felt they were expendable as part of his pursuit of his megalomaniacal ambitions.
On Purim, we turn the tables on Amalek, so-to-speak, by outwardly embracing a small element of its cynical attitude. We give the appearance of mocking and making light of that which we hold most dear, of following Amalek’s example of contempt for anything which claims to have meaning and deep significance. We demonstrate that just as Haman could not defeat us, Amalek’s negativity is likewise powerless against the eternal Jewish spirit. By putting Amalek’s cynicism on full display, we make the resounding statement that it has no effect, that we are passionately committed to Torah and mitzvot even when we incorporate a bit of Amalek into our outlook and conduct.
Ironically, then, our humorous jabbing on Purim actually serves to highlight our unbreakable religious commitment, as we announce that even the caustic cynicism of Amalek cannot extinguish our passion for the study and observance of the Torah, which we treasure, cherish and hold to be sacred for all eternity.
(Based on a drasha by Rabbi Dov Loketch)