Purim is by nature destabilizing. Costumes and coming out and the idea that nothing is as it seems. But add to it the commandment to drink and that just feels outright dangerous. In practically every chapter of the Megillah, someone is imbibing heavily at a drinking party. And the scroll concludes with Mordecai's instruction to the entire Jewish people to celebrate these days as "yemei mishteh v'simchah, days of drinking and rejoicing" (Esther 9:22).
So let's start with the question, how drunk is one really supposed to get?
We learn in the Talmud:
"Rava said: It is one's duty levasumei, to make oneself fragrant [with wine] on Purim until one cannot tell the difference between 'arur Haman' (cursed be Haman) and 'barukh Mordekhai' (blessed be Mordecai)" (Megillah 7b).
But what degree of drunkenness is meant by this? The word levasumei is from the same root as besamim (fragrant spices, like those that are smelled during Havdalah). Minimally, one should "be fragrant" - drink enough that others can smell it on your breath. And maximally, one should get sloshed, so to speak.
And if this makes you at all uncomfortable, you are in good company.
The rabbis are nervous too and tell this tale of caution:
Rabbah and Rabbi Zeira got together for a Purim Seudah (the feast on the afternoon of Purim). They got very drunk, and Rabbah got up and cut R. Zeira's throat (literally, Rabbah butchered him). The next day, Rabbah prayed on R. Zeira's behalf and brought him back to life. A year later, Rabbah asked, "Would you like to have a Purim Seudah with me again this year?" R. Zeira replied, "One cannot count on a miracle every time" (Megillah 7b).
Purim is dangerous, and the rabbis knew it. Getting dressed up, getting drunk, turning things upside down, insisting that nothing is as it seems, blurring boundaries - these are all best done with care and caution. Not only because of the threat of physical injury or death, but also emotional and spiritual safety. I have been to many Purim parties where I felt uncomfortable. Humor is funny until it's not.
If Yom Kippur - is Yom K'Purim - the day that is like Purim, then Purim is also somehow like Yom Kippur. It is its calendrical corollary, its spiritual underbelly. Much like fasting on Yom Kippur, the purpose is not the consumption of alcohol in and of itself. So if you are sober or on medication, pregnant or nursing, or for any other reason do not drink, please know drinking is only one medium for attaining a spiritual state of looseness where we can see the ironic, sometimes painful, and true interconnectedness of all things.
Purim is dangerous, but it is a portal into magical realism. And drinking is only one of the four mitzvot of Purim. The full verse quoted above from the Megillah reads, "They are to observe these as days of feasting and gladness, and for sending delicacies to one another, and giving gifts to the poor" (Esther 9:22).
Accordingly, we are instructed to hear the Megillah, give goodie bags to our friends and give tzedakah. Whether or not you plan to attend the Purim Party Fundraiser tomorrow night, I want to personally invite you to participate in the Purim mitzvah of matanot l'evyonim/giving gifts to those in need - to give as generously as you are able to La Familia Centeno-Delgado. We have raised $43,000. We need to raise $8,000 more by Purim.
This Purim, may we hearken to the wisdom of both Rava and Rabbah. May we have the courage to soften and sparkle, to let our hidden light shine. And may we have the wisdom to do so in such a way that does no harm to ourselves or others.
Rabbi Ari Lev
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Rabbi Ari Lev Fornari brings Torat Hayyim, a living tradition, to Kol Tzedek through thoughts about prayer, justice, and community.