Friday, April 08, 2011

Purim (Individual & Community)

Why Is Drinking a Mitzvah?

At the risk of engaging in a serious discussion on Purim itself, I would add a few thoughts about the mitzvah, putative or otherwise, of drinking on Purim “until one knows not between ‘Blessed is Mordecai’ and ‘ Cursed is Haman.’” I have discussed this subject in previous years (see especially HY XI: Tetzaveh–Purim [= Aggadah; blogged Feb 2010]; and my essay on “Purim and Madri Gras” in HY VI: Tzav-Purim [=Psalms; blogged Mar 13 2006]), but there is always room for new ideas. And, since I don’t observe Purim on the 14th of Adar, I am not really culpable of the cardinal sin of serious discourse on a day devoted to serious frivolity.

Rambam states that a person must strive for the golden mean in all things, and try to develop his character between extremes in any directions. The only exceptions to this are anger and arrogance (i.e., haughtiness, egotism) which are to be avoided by going to the opposite extreme—no doubt because the midrashim see these attributes as tantamount to idolatry.

Now, what is the opposite of drunkenness? Surely: a serious, solemn demeanor, in which one takes oneself with utmost seriousness, coupled with tight discipline and the feeling that “I am in control.” This is a particular danger in Judaism, as a system of rules, of strict morality, in which the ideal is to exploit every possible moment fir the service of God in one or another manner. This, it is not uncommon to find within the halakhic community individuals whose personalities are wound up like a tightly coiled spring, for whom tight control over both speech and actions is a sine qua non.

Once a year, the halakhah commands us to drink, to let go of our rigid self–discipline, as if to say “It’s OK to let go.” Underlying this is also a profound theological message: that we are not really in control, either of ourselves and our own inner, submerged impulses, and all the more so of what occurs in the world around us. This is one of the deepest lessons of Purim and of the Megillah. The world depicted in the Book of Esther is one of anarchy, in which “the center doesn’t hold,” a world ruled by chance, by a collection of random events which seemingly make no sense, and only in retrospect prove to have been serendipitous. God’ name appears nowhere in the Megillah; albeit in one place Mordecai alludes to a higher power when he tells Esther: “If you are silent at a time like this, relief deliverance shall come to the Jews from another place” (Est 4:14). However, the word ha-melekh, “the king,” appears numerous times in the Megillah (indeed, some scrolls are written in such a way that this word appears at the top of every column); even though its literal sense is to refer to the Persian emperor, our Sages tell us that every such usage also alludes to the hidden presence of God’s hand. (Indeed, the very name “Esther” is also seen as alluding to this world of hiddenness—b. Hullin 139b).

All of the above may be seen as general religious and psychological truths, valid at all times, but they seem especially germane this week. Japan, one of leading economies of the world, a powerhouse of productivity in technology and other areas, sometimes referred to as the “post-war miracle,” this week suffered a series of devastating blows: an earthquake and Tsunami that killed tens of thousands (including the missing), destroyed whole towns and small cities, leaving countless families homeless and, perhaps worst of all, damaged a series of nuclear reactors, raising the specter of an atomic meltdown and uncontrolled radiation harm. These events are yet another proof of the contingent nature if even the best and most careful of human plans in face of the titans of nature; there is no such thing as something that is “fail–proof” in human life.

We can only conclude by expressing our own shock and sadness at these tragic events, admiring the strength and nobility displayed by the Japanese people in dealing with adversary, and wishing them a speedy and recovery insofar as possible. (And perhaps it is appropriate to mention here that the Japanese, although military allies of the Nazi regime during the Second World War, in no wise shared their anti-Semitic agenda, and treated whatever Jews passed their way with kindness and decency.)


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