Purim, a Jewish celebration of survival, is a time of unrestrained joy. Jews celebrate the holiday by feasting, hearing the Book of Esther aloud, giving gifts of food and drink to friends, and giving to the poor. Adults and children dress in costumes because on Purim, nothing appears as it is; everything is transformed!
So, that’s why the rabbinic phrase, “until you can’t tell the difference” is important; in the story of Esther, there are villains and heroes, and yet we are supposed to be so joyfully intoxicated that we can no longer distinguish one from the other. In the Talmud, a sacred, multi-century compilation of rabbinic writings, the sage known as Rava writes, “A person must become intoxicated on Purim so that he cannot tell the difference between ‘cursed be Haman (the villain)’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai (the hero)’. ”
How are we supposed to achieve this intoxication? Are we supposed to drink to the point of incapacitating inebriation? If so, that presents a few problems. For example, extreme intoxication is unhealthy, and Jewish practice also teaches that we are supposed to take care of ourselves and not abuse our bodies. And for those among us who are in recovery from alcohol addiction, drinking is not an option. So, what did the Jewish sages mean by canonizing those words?
Here’s one view: Intoxication is not induced by alcohol, only! It’s possible to elevate our spirits by transcending everyday concerns, which are full of opposites and dualities, good and bad, villains and heroes. Whether by dance, prayer, meditation, laughter, or song, Purim gives us an opportunity to soar. And when we do, we taste the intoxicating elixir of “not knowing”. When we can no longer distinguish between good and evil, we experience the oneness of all, the great mystery, Divine Presence in which all is unified. In a holy state of not-knowing, we are closer to the Source of All.
Perhaps Rava was telling us to get in touch with our inner, naïve child who sees everything and does not differentiate between threat and hug. It’s a vulnerable state, a state of openness and wonder that is hard to achieve because we are conditioned to distinguish and judge. Yet, it is an elevated state because we move beyond seeking control and enter the realm of trust and surrender. Drinking to the point of drunkenness may give us a glimpse of that rare state of oneness with all, but it is mere mimicry of the real spiritual work we have to do to reach it.
The Book of Esther reminds us of life’s absurdity. The plot twists sharply, hanging on coincidences and reversals. Nothing is as it seems: a king is a fool, a trusted royal advisor is a villain, a humble man is elevated, a queen hides her Jewish identity and reveals it to save her people, and the Jewish people survive once again, despite enormous odds. And most strange for a biblical book, the name of God does not appear even once. On Purim, we can allow ourselves to be transported by this outlandish story to laugh at what we cannot understand and to appreciate the hidden power behind all life that sustains us and holds us in love.