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Drinking, Religion and Purim
By Larry Fine
I once worked with a very sweet and sincere Southern Christian Baptist. One day at work I told him that I would not be in the office on day next week because it was Purim. I was taking that day off, but I really hoped that I would make it in the day after. That to me was more problematic.
He looked at me and asked me what I meant when I said that the day after "my Holy-day" was more problematic than the Holy day itself. When I replied that on Purim it is the custom to drink alcoholic beverages and that I hoped that I would not get drunk again. He looked at me in disbelief. "What? You are a religious man, how can you drink?"
I answered him that not only do I drink alcohol, but some of the rabbis that I know get really down and out drunk! Some might even drink so much they could probably need to check into alcohol treatment centers eventually. He told me that now he knows that I am just pulling his leg. It would be difficult for him to believe that I, a religious man, might take a drink. But to his way of thinking, it was impossible and absurd that a rabbi, a holy man, a communal leader, would not just take a drink, but actually get drunk, - that to him was an obvious lie!
To him, as to many sober religious gentiles, drinking and drunkenness is synonymous with sin. Was not Noah the first to plant a vineyard and then get drunk? From this a curse came down unto mankind. And in my opinion, they are not far from being correct. But for we Jews, we seem to handle drinking differently.
Well it has been many years since I worked in that office. I have forgotten the name of that fine fellow, but I still can't forget his reaction to my telling him how it is a religious obligation for Jewish men to get drunk.
The obligation to drink on Purim is a very interesting obligation. In reality, like my former Southern Baptist friend, there is perhaps more reason to forbid drinking on Purim than there is to make a rabbinical enactment advocating drunkenness.
First Achasverous, the king of Babylonia, after cementing his world wide kingdom, the largest in almost all recorded history, one that stretched from India to Ethiopia, was satisfied and secure in his rule. He made a gigantic drink fest in his palace which was regaled especially to show off his wealth. The king himself succumbed to lure of wine and in a drunken stupor ordered the royal queen, Vashti, to be brought before all of his advisors naked that they may see just how beautiful she is. We can see here how alcohol brought the great and mighty King Achasverous to a new low level.
The truth was that Vashti actually would not have minded the show of her flesh to the lewd eyes of the royal court had she not broken out in a rash. Instead she sent a message to her husband, the king, rejecting his offer and offending his sensibilities in public. King Achasverous whose mind was spinning from the wine was devastated by Vashti's unkind refusal. Seeking to save face, the king had her executed.
As the story goes, the king was lonely and a competition was made to find the fair damsel who would reign in place of Vashti. Esther the Jewess was chosen by the king. From this the story of Purim unfolds and eventually Esther was able to bring a redemption to the Jews from Haman's evil decree.
Later on in the story, we find that after the wedding of Esther with King Achasverous another wine fest was held in the king's royal palace. This one was even greater than the first. Even the Jews were in attendance and the rabbis relate that here they sinned. The reason was that King Achasverous brought to the banquet the Holy Vessels that had been taken from the Holy Temple in Jerusalem. These vessels were used for lewd drinking purposes at King Achasverous's drinking party with the Jews in attendance.
Again we see every reason for abstaining from drinking! So then why in the world should the rabbis obligate us to drink?
In reality, the sages tell us that three things tell us about the character of a man, "kees, kaas, kos". The first, kees, means his wallet, how he spends his money, on what he spends his money and on what he will not spend it. This will tell us what importance he attaches to various aspects of the material world. The second is kass, meaning anger. Knowing what makes him angry and seeing what is his ability to suppress his anger will tell us about the inner character of the man.
The third is kos. This means his cup, or his drinking alcohol. We can tell what type of person he is when he drinks since many of the inhibitions that he has are broken down. The barriers that he has erected to protected himself and hide behind so that we may not see the real man begin to crumble. The façade that he has utilized to make us believe that he was of a certain quality and mind begin to exhibit cracks. What he really is - between himself and his inner being - begin to surface.
Purim is the proving ground of truth. If a person is wholly given to G-d, his actions will directed only towards Him. The mitzvoth of Purim are relatively easy to perform. The ability and availability for sin is an added ingredient. Will man, upon over imbibing, find himself extending into the dark area of sin, or will his internal and intrinsic love for G-d shine through his drunken exterior now that the façade which he has erected is weakened with alcohol.
What is really inside of the man? Is he really one who loves G-d with all of his heart, but the world demands get in the way of his seeking G-d? Or is it that the world and its materialism have captured the man's heart and G-d and his mitzvoth are obstacles in the way of seeking his material pleasures?
Let wine come in, in to the man, in large quantities. When wine comes in, the truth comes out. What about you? Can you face the truth about yourself? Purim is the testing ground for who you are. If you are true, then happy are you. If you sin, better not to drink.
That is Purim for our time. Let he who is willing to be tested raise his glass up in celebration of the great goodness that the G-d of Israel has done for him and his people.
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