Sobering Stories for Purim
by Rabbi Yehudah Prero
One of the customs associated with Purim is drinking at the Purim feast. This
custom serves as a commemoration of the essential role wine played in the
miracle of Purim: For example, Vashti was killed because of the intoxicating
effects of wine, which allowed Esther to become queen, and at a wine party,
Esther was able to turn the tables on Haman. The Talmud (Megillah 7b) states
"One is obligated to drink (alcohol) on Purim until one does not know the
difference between "Blessed is Mordechai" and "Cursed is Haman." As drinking
to excess seems out of place with the norm of Jewish practices, this directive
is explained in many ways. Some explain that the "until" is not to be
interpreted as an expression of inclusion. Rather, the drinking is to be until
the point of incapability to differentiate, exclusive of that state. Others
explain that the inability to differentiate arises because one falls asleep
from drinking alcohol, and it is in that state one should fulfill this
commandment. Whatever the interpretation, all agree that the drinking has to
be done with the intent to praise G-d for His miracles and thank Him for
saving us. If this is kept in perspective, the celebration can be a truly
joyous one, both spiritually and physically.
Rav Elazar Rokeach of Amsterdam was a respected confidant of the Queen of
Holland. One year, on Purim, the Queen learned that the dikes around Holland
were in danger of collapsing, posing a serious threat of flooding to the
entire country. She sent messengers to Rav Elazar, requesting that he pray on
behalf on the entire country. Rav Elazar, who was in the midst of his Purim
feast, heard the request, and the messengers returned to the Queen.
Immediately, he ordered that many more bottles of wine, of the finest wines,
be brought to his table, and instructed all those at his home to partake of
them and to rejoice. Soon, all were engaged in drink and song, celebrating
Purim to the fullest. Later that evening, the Queen wanted to let Rav Elazar
know that the dangerous situation was over. When the messengers bearing this
message arrived at Rav Elazar's' house, they were shocked: Everyone was
singing, feasting, and drinking! The messengers immediately returned to the
Queen, who was taken aback at this report. She sent a message to Rav Elazar:
"I thought that when you heard the terrible news, you would proclaim a fast
day, call for mass prayer, act in a way that was illustrative of how dire the
situation was. How, then, could you go about your merriment when you knew that
the entire country was in peril!"
Rav Elazar explained that "The best way to appease G-d is to do His will. When
we listen to His word and fulfill His dictates to the fullest, He acts to us
in similar fashion and grants us our requests. On this day, we have the
holiday of Purim. We were commanded to rejoice and celebrate. I figured that
the best way to ask G-d to help us was to obey His word to the best of my
ability. I therefore celebrated today for the honor of G-d, to the best of my
ability. In this way, I hoped that in the merit that I fulfilled G-d's wishes
today, so too would He fulfill ours. And indeed, that appears to have
Although we are commanded to engage in merriment on Purim, this commandment
does not supersede others. The Rem"a was worried that because his fellow Jews
in Krakow were drinking to celebrate Purim, they might forget to recite
Ma'ariv, the evening prayers. To assure that this did not occur, he used to go
visit the residents of Krakow after nightfall, when the Purim feasts were
concluding. The Rem"a would knock on an individual's door, and request water
so he could wash his hands. He would then say to himself, yet loud enough that
his hosts could hear, "Oh, I need to go pray Ma'ariv!" He went from house to
house, repeating this act, to provide a gentle reminder that everyone should
not forget, due to the merriment, to pray Ma'ariv.
As with all celebrations in Jewish life, our happiness is not complete because
we are in exile, and the Bais HaMikdosh, The Holy Temple, remains in ruins.
Rav Nosson Adler used to recite Psalm 137, "Al Naharos Bavel," on Purim.
This psalm speaks of our exile and how we will always lift the memory of
Jerusalem above our moments of joy. He explained that we have a long standing
tradition to temper all moments of joy with the remembrance of the destroyed
Jerusalem. Therefore, on Purim, when we have a commandment to celebrate, this
custom is not abandoned and we must remember the sad state of the Jewish
nation. However, he added that we need to be sure that we raise the memory of
Jerusalem above our happiness at the peak of our joy - the time when we are
still intoxicated during the Purim feast.
May this be a most joyous Purim for everyone, and may it be the last one we
have to spend in exile!
A Freilichin Purim!
For questions, comments, and topic requests, please write to Rabbi Yehudah Prero.
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