A person should drink on Purim until the point where they can't tell the difference between "Blessed is Mordechai" and "Cursed is Haman. (Talmud - Megillah 7a; Code of Jewish Law 695:2)
Isn't getting drunk antithetical to Torah tradition? Doesn't Judaism place strong emphasis on intellectual pursuits? How does loss of mental clarity possibly bring a person to spiritual clarity?
I once heard a representative of the Jewish community being interviewed on the radio on the topic of Purim. "What is the significance of the Purim holiday?" asked the radio host.
Explained the Jew: "Just as the Irish have a springtime drinking holiday called St. Patrick's Day, so too the Sages instituted Judaism's own springtime drinking holiday called Purim."
Now for the Real Explanation
To begin, we first need to define the concept of "laughter." Laughter occurs when the unexpected happens. A toddler puts on her father's big shoes – and we laugh. The president forgets his lines in a speech – and we laugh. When two contrary elements are juxtaposed, the sudden surprise catches us off guard. And the more unexpected it is, the funnier it is.
In the days of Mordechai and Esther, the Jews went from being the target of annihilation, to being the heroes and victors. It was a miraculous 180-degree shift in fortune. Joy comes both from seeing justice served upon our enemies, as well as being raised from the pit ourselves. One who thought he was in danger and suddenly discovers he's safe, laughs aloud in relief. One who thought he lived alone in a hostile world and suddenly discovers that God is really there, laughs aloud in joy.
What Does This Have To Do With Drinking?
How does alcohol help us experience this idea that the world is good, that everything will work out for the best?
Human beings see the world from a finite perspective. The reality, however, is that God and His universe is infinite. But since we are tied to the finite physical world by our bodies, we're forced to live within the illusion of the finite world.
When we drink, we loosen our reliance on physical senses – and our souls are freer to feel the Oneness of God and the universe. Drink is an opportunity to transcend limitations that blind us to seeing God more clearly.
The message of Purim is that even though it's hard to see Him, God is here in the world. Even when things look bad, even if we're suffering, in some way it has got to be all for the best, because there's a beneficent God behind everything, manipulating events for our good.
This is what is means to "drink until you can't tell the difference between 'Blessed is Mordechai' and 'Cursed is Haman.'" It is only because of our limited perceptions that we see a difference. But in God's infinite reality, there is no difference between the two. It is all ultimately for the good.
On Purim, we drink to the point that we lift out of the reliance on our senses, so all aspects of reality are fused together. We see that everything is part of God's "grand eternal plan," where ultimately Haman is punished and Mordechai is rewarded. We drink to the point where we can't intelligently debate which aspect of God's revelation is greater. Because in truth, it's all the same.
(A fun twist on this theme: In Hebrew, the numerical value (gematria) of "Cursed is Haman" is 502. The numerical value of "Blessed is Mordechai" is also 502. On Purim we get drunk to the point that we can no longer compute the mathematics!)
Raising Our Spirits
If we were on a higher spiritual level, we wouldn't need to get drunk. If we were truly clear on the idea that the only real power operating in the world is God, we wouldn't have nearly as much worry and anxiety as we normally do. With trust in God, we would be fully relaxed. But since we're not on such a high level, we drink in order to loosen up, laugh at our troubles, forget our anxieties – and break down our walls. Then we can really see that God's world is good, and everything will work out.
The Talmud says: Nichnas yayin, yatza sode - "when the wine goes in, the secret comes out." (Both "wine" and "secret" share the same numerical value, 70.) Wine tunes us in to the underlying reality of God's presence.
The Burden of Worries
Why is it so hard in everyday life to see this reality?
Judaism teaches that there are opposing inclinations within every human being – both a good inclination (the "Yetzer Tov"), and a bad inclination (the "Yetzer Hara"). God created the bad inclination in order to challenge us to rise above it. The bad inclination is the source of all our unproductive worry which debilitates our ability to recognize God's presence and to appreciate all the good in life.
On Purim, we wear costumes and perform skits – mocking our hang-ups, idiosyncrasies, and worries. We attack the source of our debilitating anxiety – the Yetzer Hara. We laugh about how silly it really is!
The story of Haman's downfall and Mordechai's rise teaches us that even at a time when we're powerless to act, God continues to protect us and shield us. On Purim, we drink to life – "L'chaim" – with the knowledge that all our troubles are temporary. We capture the joy that just as God redeemed us from previous exiles, so too He will do so again. Because God is always here, running the world for our benefit.
Message from Rabbi Abraham J. Twerski, M.D., author, psychiatrist, and founder of Gateway Rehabilitation Center, Pittsburgh
Purim is soon upon us, and many people drink to excess because of the mistaken notion that there is a "mitzvah" to get drunk on Purim... One of the final authorities on halacha, the Chafetz Chaim in Mishna Berura (695) states clearly that the proper thing to do is not to drink to intoxication, but rather to drink just a bit more than is customary (which would be a glass or two of wine), and go to sleep. This is the proper way to fulfil "not distinguishing between 'cursed be Haman' and 'blessed be Mordechai".
Let us use good judgement on Purim. We should set a model for our children by not drinking to excess and by supervising adolescents so that they do not drink. We can all enjoy a safe, respectable Purim.
Message from Dr. Mike, Chief of General Pediatrics at Schneider Children's Hospital:
I have seen far too many teenagers as well as adults who require emergency attention after becoming drunk on Purim. Last year the Hatzalah Ambulance Corps in New York was called numerous times to treat or transport seriously ill patients with alcohol ingestions. This prevents and interferes with the care of other patients and increases response time while overwhelming precious health care resources...
All people and especially children and teenagers should be warned of the dangers of acute alcohol ingestion and encouraged not to become drunk on Purim as this endangers their life as well as other people. Driving and drinking obviously is absolutely against halacha and common sense. Mentioning this would be most helpful and potentially life-saving. Rabbis, teachers and parents should be encouraged to discuss this issue with all children and adults before Purim and throughout the year.