By Rebbetzen Vicki Belovski, Emeritus Rebbetzen, Golders Green Synagogue
Purim! At last – a chance to make a lot of noise in shul, wear fancy dress and drink more than usual. How wonderful – all those things frowned upon during the rest of the year suddenly become acceptable! Yet surely this is not what was intended when Purim was instituted as a celebration of the downfall of Haman and the overturning of his plans to wipe out the entire Jewish people in a single day?
The Midrash describes Haman visiting Achashverosh to set his evil plot in motion. He complains about a particular people, scattered across the empire, saying that they spend all their time eating and drinking, regularly celebrating either Shabbat or Yom Tov. G-d responds to this accusation, saying, ‘You wicked man, who begrudges them their festivals! I will overthrow you and add yet another festival to celebrate your downfall’. Haman’s complaint is not just a case of playground spite – rather it is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Jewish connection with the physical world. Reb Tzadok HaKohen of Lublin comments on this, pointing out that it is possible to use physical pleasure as a means of achieving closeness with G-d, as we do when we celebrate Shabbat with tasty meals, combined with words of Torah and song (zemirot).
That on Purim we take the physical and use it to draw closer to G-d is understandable; but why the need to use it (seemingly) to excess by drinking? Perhaps this story answers the question:
A man is travelling across the country, with a driver. They stop for a break at an inn, where the man meets his long-lost best friend from childhood. They are delighted to see each other, but just as they settle down to catch up, the driver says it is time to leave. The man buys the driver a drink, followed by another drink. Eventually he ensconces him with a bottle of whisky, enabling the two friends to spend the whole night talking and enjoying each other’s company. In the morning, after the driver has sobered up, the friends are able to part, having re-established their connection.
The two friends represent G-d and a person’s soul, whose close connection to each other is sometimes hampered by the driver – the body. By taking the body out of action, the soul is able to achieve a truly close connection with G-d. There are two ways of doing this – by ignoring the body’s needs, as on Yom Kippur, or by anaesthetising the body, as on Purim. It is no coincidence that the two days are often linked – with ‘Yom Kippurim’ (Day of Atonements, the plural form used in the Torah to refer to 10 Tishrei, the date of Yom Kippur) often described as ‘Yom Ke’Purim’, meaning ‘a day like Purim’. Both days, at opposite ends of the physical spectrum, offer unparalleled opportunities for closeness with G-d and revealing one’s inner beauty. This is a true celebration of the victory over Haman and his worldview.