A person is obligated to drink on Purim until he doesn't know the difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordechai. (Megillah 7b; Shulchan Aruch, Orach Chaim 695:2)
One of the most curious mitzvos in all of Judaism is the one to drink wine on Purim "until you do not recognize the difference between cursed Haman and blessed Mordechai." Are we a people that promotes drunkenness (one would have to be quite drunk to not recognize the difference between the Mordechai and Haman)? If the Torah adjures us to be holy even when engaging in permitted activities,1 can the rabbis advocate the opposite?
Obviously the above Talmudic statement is only half of the story, since the same rabbis also wrote:
Anyone who becomes settled through wine has the knowledge (da'as) of his Creator ... has the knowledge (da'as) of the Seventy Elders; wine was given with seventy letters (Rashi: the gematria of yaiyin-wine-is 70), and the mystery (of Torah) was given with seventy letters (sod-mystery-also equals 70)-when wine goes in, secrets go out. (Eiruvin 65a)
Rashi explains the final statement to mean that, anyone who can drink wine and keep a secret is considered equal to a sanhedrin of seventy elders. But is Purim merely a time to test ourselves to see how well we can keep a secret while under the influence of alcohol, or a time to reveal that which was previously hidden?
After all, the whole point of wearing costumes on Purim is to reveal our yetzer hara, to mock how the rest of the year we pretend to be things we are not. Purim is the great exposure of the hidden yetzer hara, and more importantly, of the hidden hand of God that shapes destiny and directs the affairs of man-from behind the scenes.
This is why the name chosen for the holiday was Purim,
which comes from the word "pur," meaning "lottery." Haman had cast lots to determine which day was most fitting to carry out his diabolical scheme of exterminating the Jewish people. However, that very lottery triggered a series of events that led to his own downfall instead, revealing the hand of God in the entire affair. This is also why Purim is a holiday related to Torah Sh'b'al Peh, which reveals that which is hidden within the simple letters and stories of Torah Sh'b'k'sav-the Written Law.
Regardless, one thing is clear: wine is strongly related to da'as. After all, like wine, da'as improves with age. And, like wine, the ability of da'as to maintain its correct "flavor" depends upon the container holding it:
Why are the words of Torah compared to three liquids: water, wine and milk? ... This is to teach you that, just as these three liquids can best be kept in ordinary utensils, such as wood or earthenware, so too can the Torah only be contained by those who possess a humble mind. The daughter of Caesar once said to Rebi Yehoshua ben Chananyah,
"Such an ugly vessel and such glorious wisdom!"
He told her, "My daughter, in what does the king, your father keep his best wine?"
"In earthenware containers," she answered him.
"The commoners keep their wine in earthenware containers," He told her, "Shall your father do so also?"
"In what should they be kept," she asked him innocently.
"You who are wealthy," Rebi Yehoshua remarked, "should keep it in silver or gold containers!"
She told her father, who then commanded that all his wine be kept in containers of silver and gold. Consequently it became sour, and when the Caesar was informed of this, he asked his daughter,
"Who told you to do this?"
"Rabbi Yehoshua ben Chananyah," she told him.
The king sent for Rebi Yehoshua ben Chananyah, and asked him,
"Why did you give her such advice?"
"This was the answer to her question." (Ta'anis 7a)
In fact, one who possesses all of Torah is referred to as an eshkolos-a grape cluster-a play on the word which can be understood as ish kol bo-one within whom is everything, that is, all of Torah,2 or better yet, da'as itself, for:
There is no da'as other than Torah. (Sota 49a)
This is why wine is used as a parable for Aiden, the glorious future world reserved for the completely righteous,3 and why shira, the holy song of the soul recited by the Leviim in the Bais HaMikdosh, was pronounced over wine.4
And not only is wine associated with da'as, but it is also connected to the Aitz HaDa'as Tov v'Rah, for, according to the Talmud, Adam HaRishon made his mistake because of wine.5 This would help to explain why Noach made the crucial mistake of becoming intoxicated after leaving the ark.6Noach had attempted to rectify the mistake of Adam, and hadn't even intended to get drunk.7
Being associated with da'as, one would expect wine to also be closely connected to the Fifty Gates of Understanding. It is-according to the Talmud, the "wine protected in the grapes since the six days of creation" refers to the reward to be given to ba'alei tshuva, recipients of the Fifty Gates of Understanding.8
The truth is, the Gra (Vilna Gaon) states outright out: da'as is called wine.9 He also points out the inherent connection between da'as and Ya'akov Avinu, the father of the "seventy souls" that came down to Egypt (Bereishis 46:27).10 This is why Yosef, when setting the stage for his reunification with his father after twenty-two years of living away, sent his father yaiyin sh'da'as zekeinim nocheh himeinu-wine that is pleasing to the elders (i.e., the Seventy Elders). The significance of this will become clear in Chapter Five.
Wine played a direct role in the drama that led to the miracle of Purim as well. It was a drunken Achashveros who demanded that his wife, Queen Vashti (who name means, "and drink") appear before him. He wanted to show off her beauty to his visiting guests, and for reasons of her own, she declined. This so angered Achashveros that he had Vashti executed, which, of course, opened the door for Esther to become the new queen of Persia, and to steal Achashveros' heart.
In light of all this, then, the wine imbibed on Purim can't be meant as a test of our imunity to alcohol's inebriating effect. On the contrary, the wine of Purim must be meant to bring out the hidden-the hidden da'as-the sod of Torah. It is not a state of drunkenness that is expected to obliterate the distinction in our minds between the evil Haman and the righteous Mordechai, but the da'as that is hidden in the heart of every Jew, waiting to be revealed when the moment is right, such as on Purim.
There is a parable that explains how this is to happen through the "wine" of Purim, a story set in the 1800's of two boys who were inseparable in their early years. They played together, learned together, and did just about everything they could together, so close were they.
However, by the time they had become of marrying age, their fathers had already arranged shidduchim. Not long after they were married, each to a woman who lived in a town far from the one they had grown up in. At that time, travel was slow and expensive, and mail delivery was rare. It did not take long for each of the boys to forget about his friend as he worked on building his own family life.
Years passed, and both had occasion to travel. As Divine Providence would have it, they both passed through the Vienna train station at the same time, though they were headed in opposite directions. As they made their way to their trains, they passed each other on the platform.
As first, they didn't recognize each other. Black, scragly beards had given way to full, gray beards over the years. They were full-grown men now, and each looked it. But, as they non-chalantly passed each, they froze in their tracks. Something looked familiar, and memories quickly returned. Slowly, each turned around until they found themselves facing each other.
"Shloimie, is that you?" Moishie asked increduosly.
"Moishie, is that you? Shloimie asked, choked-up.
Suddenly, in the middle of a crowded Vienna train station, two grown men dropped them valises and embraced each other, attracting a lot of attention. Remaining in their embrace as they walked, as if letting go would mean instant separation for another twenty-five years, they made their way to a bench.
"Moishie!" Shloimie jumped in. "I've heard so much about you. I've heard you've made a real name for yourself in learning. How's your wife and family? What are you up to these days? ..."
"And you!" Moishie interrupted. "I hear that you are a Rosh Yeshivah now. I always knew you'd be one some day ..."
All of sudden, a train blew its whistle. And then, another train blew its whistle. It was the first warning that the time had come to board the trains. Shloimie and Moishie looked at each other, and asked hesitantly,
"Which way are you going?!"
"West! And you?!"
"No ... It can't be! How can twenty-five years of separation can come down to a few minutes of reunion?" Moishie asked tearfully.
"Wait!" said Shloimie, smiling. "I have an idea. I have wine in my bag and a glass. Why don't you take a glass of wine, and bring it to the conductor of your train, and I'll do the same with mine. We'll get them drunk, and then no one will go anywhere for at least an hour. Then we can catch up on everything that has happened since we last left the shtetl!"11
The soul of each person comes down to the body prior to birth, pure, and unadulterated. It comes to perform a mission, to elevate the body and make it holy. However, by virtue of its nature, the body has other plans, and through the course of the year, it shlepps the soul through the "mud" of everyday, mundane life.
If only the body, the "conductor" would rest for a moment. Then, perhaps, the soul could go back to being a soul once again, and in the process, elevate the body. But day-after-day, the "whistle" blows and the body is on the move again, shlepping the soul around through its world.
On Purim, once a year, we get the "conductor" drunk. We imbibe wine so that, for at least a little while, it won't go anywhere, physical and mentally. This way, the soul has a chance to catch up on soul-business, and to relate to other souls-as a soul.
However, there are basically two ways to get the conductor "drunk" on Purim. The most common way is to drink enough wine to lose consciousness, and not only lose sight of the difference between Mordechai and Haman, but between life and death as well. That is not Da'as Koneh-God's da'as.
The second way is to get "drunk" on da'as itself, to rise to a level of intellectual clarity possible only by passing through the Fifty Gates of Understanding (perhaps with the help of actual wine). It is this that allows the Jew to intellectually overcome any cosmic difference between the evil Haman and the righteous Mordechai. In this way, Purim is just like Yom Kippur, which is called, Yom K'Purim-a day like Purim.
Ultimately, intellectual intoxication means to develop an ayin, an eye (the letter g is equal to seventy) that can see past Amalek, for it is this ayin that Amalek comes to blind:
Amalek: ayin-malak (ayin-mem, lamed, kuf)
(the severed eye)
(Interestingly enough, Bilaam, as he blessed the Jewish people and praised their houses of study of Torah Sh'b'al Peh, referred to himself as "the man with the bored-out eye."12 Furthermore, the Talmud asks:
Why is the word rashayim (evil people) written with an ayin (it is spelt: raish, shin, ayin, yud, mem)? [To indicate that] when a man makes a noise below, he makes a noise Above. (Sanhedrin 103b)
What the Talmud means is that the word rashayim, spelled without the ayin spells the word rasham, which means "their noise." However, it is the ayin, or rather, the negative use of the ayin that transforms the word to mean evil people.)
It all has to do with the eyes, Purim says. Isn't it amazing what the existence of da'as means in terms of vision, and how one relates to the natural world?13 Amalekian da'as precludes a vision of God, and promotes a live-for-the-present lifestyle. Da'as Torah, on the other hand, reveals a much broader vision, one that supercedes natural existence and incorporates a World-to-Come, and one that is alluded to by the number seventy.
But is there more to the number seventy than the fact that it is represented by the Hebrew letter ayin, and that it is the numerical value of wine and sod? After all, Golus Bavel-the Babylonian Exile lasted seventy years, and it was this seventy years that prompted Achashveros to make his fantastic celebration, with which Megillos Esther begins. However, to answer this question, we must first take a look at the incredible property of the miraculous bread from heaven-the munn.
3 Brochos 34b; it is called the "wine guarded in the grapes since the six days of creation."
4 That is, at the time the wine was poured onto the altar (Brochos 35a).
5 Sanhedrin 70a; one opinion holds that the tree itself had been a grape vine, and as Divine Providence would have it, this is found on the seventieth folio page of the Talmud!
6 Bereishis 9:20.
7 Igra d'Kallah, Parashas Noach, 21 and 22.
8 Brochos 34b.
9 Safra D'Tzniusa, Chapter Two.
10 Safra D'Tzniusa, Chapter One.
11 Heard in the name of Rabbi Yitzchak Hutner, zt"l.
12 BaMidbar 24:3; Bilaam was missing one eye, and some say that this enabled him to have some level of prophecy, since prophecy cannot come to someone as spiritually impure as Bilaam. Thus, in the space where his eye should have been, there was a void within which prophecy could "dwell" so-to-speak.
13 Perhaps this is why there is a special halacha that allows talmidei chachamim to recover a lost object with te'vias ayin (Babba Metzia 23b), literally, the "claim of the eye," or, of "seventy."