Right now, we are preparing for one of the most celebratory Jewish holidays of the year: Purim! This festival, which will be observed this year March 20-21, truly lives up to the old phrase, “They tried to kill us, we won, now let’s eat!”
Long ago in Persia, the evil villain Haman is filled with rage by those who are different from him. With the support of the corrupt and incompetent King Ahasuerus, Haman attempts to decimate the Jewish community. When Mordechai hears of the plot, he summons the heroic Queen Esther, who puts her life on the line to save herself and her people. Haman’s plan is foiled, and the Jewish people win.
In this Jewish month of Adar, we are required to be happy and joyous. We celebrate our victory and have a little bit of fun, too. We dress up in costumes, watch silly Purim spiels and boo loudly whenever we here Haman’s name!
Yet, Purim is not just a children’s holiday. Our rabbis taught that the adults should also let down their hair. In our day and age, many of us will celebrate the holiday by gathering at Purim parties AND by drinking a lot of alcohol. For in the Babylonian Talmud, we learn this lesson: Each of us is obligated to become so intoxicated on Purim that we’re unable to distinguish between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai.
Passover provides us with a tangible way to mark our consumption — four glasses of wine. Yet on Purim, we aren’t told how much to drink, except that we shouldn’t be able to tell the difference between Haman, our enemy, and Mordecai, our hero. That is a lot of alcohol and a lot of drinking! Can you imagine? Unfortunately, drinking that much alcohol can lead to horrible tragedies.
Our Jewish tradition also recognized the dangers of drinking too much. Directly following this rabbinic obligation to pursue drunkenness, the Talmud shifts direction and shares the story about a drunken encounter gone horribly wrong:
One year, Rabba and Rabbi Zeira celebrated Purim together. They became so intoxicated to the point that Rabba arose and slaughtered Rabbi Zeira. The next day when Rabba became sober, he realized what he had done. Rabba asked God for mercy and revived Rabbi Zeira. The next year, Rabba said to Rabbi Zeira: Come, let’s celebrate Purim together. Rabbi Zeira replied: Miracles do not happen each and every hour!
The Talmud shares a counterpoint to the rabbinic obligation to become overly intoxicated. Our two sages, Rabba and Rabbi Zeira, followed the letter of the law, but their intoxication led to a dire outcome. Rabba, in his drunken state, actually slaughters Rabbi Zeira. It was only because of God’s mercy and a true miracle from heaven that Rabbi Zeira’s life was saved.
Yet, the next year, Rabba was ready to do it all over again. “Come join me for my Purim party?” he says to Rabbi Zeira. Rabba didn’t learn the lesson the first time and didn’t recognize the danger of his excessive drinking. It’s only Rabbi Zeira who reminds him (and us) “that miracles do not happen each and every day!”
This story is a cautionary tale about excessive drinking. Just because a miracle occurred in the past doesn’t mean we will be saved in future encounters.
We, of course, want and need to celebrate! With our busy lives and the stress that fills our work, home life and the world around us, we need time to relax and let loose. However, our Jewish tradition also reminds of the dangers of excessive drinking and excessive behavior. Our health is paramount and nothing matters more.
In our celebrating, moderation is key. On this Purim and throughout the year, make sure to take it easy. Let’s have fun, but let’s be safe.
Rabbi Andy Gordon is spiritual leader of Bolton Street Synagogue in Roland Park.