Mar 13 2011

Purim’s Strange Mitzva

One of the most perplexing and seemingly “un-Jewish”  of the practices of Judaism is the Talmudic injunction, “One is obligated to drink on Purim until he can no longer distinguish between ‘cursed be Haman and blessed be Mordechai.’” The Torah addresses excessive drinking in several narratives.

Upon the conclusion   of the cataclysmic flood, Noah plants a vineyard. The biblical next relates that Noah imbibed his wine to intoxication and “uncovered himself within his tent.” Whatever then occurred is hidden in an extraordinarily cryptic text, “Ham, the father of Canaan, saw their father’s nakedness and told his two brother’s outside.” The Talmud suggests that a grievous transgression of a sexual nature took place. In any case, the severity of the act is reflected in the punishment meted out to Ham’s family, “Cursed be Canaan, a slave of slaves shall he be to his brothers.”

In the wake of the destruction of Sodom and Gemara, Lot and his two daughters find refuge in a cave. His daughters assume that the world has come to an end and the three of them remain alone of all humanity. In an effort to replenish the earth’s population they ply their father with wine and proceed to sleep with him. From these unions are born the nations of Moav and Ammon, known in the biblical context for their ignoble legacy.

This is just part of what seems to e the Torah’s polemic against drunkenness. The dissonance between this and the “strange mitzvah” of drinking on Purim was duly noted by the medieval commentators. Let’s examine the subtly profound view of Rabbi Aharon ben Yaakov (14th century). But we must first see the formulation of the great codifier, Maimonides (12th century), who states:

What does the obligation to serve this meal entail? One should eat meat and in general have as fine a repast as his means would allow, and drink wine until it overcomes him and makes him fall asleep… It is preferable to spend more on gifts to the poor than on the Purim meal or on presents to friends. For no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. Indeed, he who causes the hearts of these unfortunates to rejoice emulates the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, To revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones. (Is. 57:15)

Maimonides is not altogether clear on how much one should drink on Purim. Some suggest that he means that one should drink a little more than usual so that one becomes sleepy and in a state of sleep one cannot tell the difference between “cursed be Haman and blessed be Morchechai.” In any case, what interests us is his qualifying of the Purim feast with the exhortation to budget more for the gifts to the poor than on a particularly lavish feast for family and friends.
Now let’s carefully examine the formulation of Rabbi Aharon ben Yaakov, in his important work, Kol Bo, whose ordering of the material was clearly inspired by Maimonides :

The statement, ‘A man is obligated to drink on Purim …’ does not mean to become intoxicated, for drunkenness is completely forbidden; no sin is worse, for it leads to sexual misconduct and spilling of blood and various other transgressions. Rather,  one should drink a little more than he is accustomed to, so that he should be very joyful. Thus he will also give joy to the poor, comforting them and speaking to their hearts – and this is joy in its full perfection.

Rabbi Aharon’s juxtaposition of the Purim feast with the emphasis on providing for the poor is clearly evocative of Maimonides. But notice the difference! In Maimonides the connecting link is the budgeting issue. In Rabbi Aharon the link is causal, “thus he will also give to the poor…”. Somehow, the proper fulfillment of the mitzvah to drink wine leads to the proper fulfillment of the mitzvah of charity. Furthermore, Maimonides does not address in what manner the mitzvah of charity is to be carried out, other than “writing a check.” Rabbi Aharon, in contrast, states “…comforting them and speaking to their hearts…”. But how does “drinking a little more than he is accustomed to” fulfill the Talmudic measure of not be able to distinguish between “cursed be Haman and blessed be Morchechai”? The answer is the key to the subtly profound approach of Rabbi Aharon.

Perhaps Rabbi Aharon is suggesting that we tend (sometimes justifiably) to classify people into two groups, “the good ones and the bad ones, the successful and the failures, the attractive and the repugnant” or in metaphorical terms, “the Morchechais” and “the Hamans.” The poor and destitute are perceived as failures and are often unattractive and even repulsive in their dress, hygiene, and mannerisms. Most of us are willing to share are resources with them, as long as we don’t have to relate to them on a truly personal and human-to-human level. We fear personally associating with these unfortunates, lest we somehow then be perceived, by ourselves or by others, as not that different. Rabbi Aharon is telling us that a glass of wine can be a gentle aid to changing our consciousness, helping us to transcend our classification of people in a way that divides and separates, preventing us from the fullest possible fulfillment of the mitzvah of giving to the poor, which cannot suffice with a mere writing of a check but must be accompanied by “comforting them and speaking to their hearts.”

Wishing us all a most joyous Purim, “for no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers.”