Purim in the Shtetl. By Zalman Kleiman.
A uniquely intriguing and uncharacteristic statement in the Talmud (the primary body of Jewish law and literature) declares that "On Purim a person is obligated to become intoxicated until he does not know the difference between 'Cursed is Haman' and 'Blessed is Mordechai.'" (Talmud, Megilah 7b).
In Judaism, excessive drinking is seen as both repulsive and destructive. In Genesis we are informed that intoxication by Noah and then Lot led to disaster. Little needs to be said today to validate this truth.
In America today, as in so many other parts of the world, alcoholism has destroyed too many a life and family. For people who have fallen prey to the devil of addiction, no religious excuse should ever be employed to allow the demon of alcoholic or drug addiction to destroy themselves and their loved ones.
Yet for individuals living up to Talmudic moral and spiritual standards -- abstaining from any form of excessive drinking all year around and, instead, toiling to refine their characters and dispositions under complete sobriety -- Jewish tradition designates one day of the year when they ought to leave the inhibitions of the rational mind in order to express the full depth and glow of their passions, which are usually stored in the super-conscious chambers of their souls. An individual who has dedicated an entire year to work soberly on his or her psychological, emotional and spiritual identity, as Judaism incessantly demands, will not be pulled down by the once-a-year consumption of alcohol.
Still, the Talmud's demand that under the spell of intoxication one ought to forget the difference between "Cursed is Haman" and "Blessed is Mordechai" seems absolutely bizarre.
Haman was a ruthless power monger, a self-centered egomaniac and an evil barbarian who schemed to exterminate every single Jew living in the Persian Empire. He was the Hitler of his day. Mordechai, on the other hand, was a saintly sage, a genuine leader, a lover of G-d, of his people and of humanity. It seems obvious that a decent human being should never forget that Haman must be cursed and Mordechai blessed. Moral equations between monsters and good people, although popular in some academic circles today, are grotesque and disgusting. They allow the monsters to continue their work.
What is even more bizarre is that we are enjoined to engage in this forgetfulness on the Jewish holiday of Purim -- the day in which we celebrate Jewish deliverance from the vicious Haman as a result of the courageous spiritual and political leadership of Mordechai. The very holiday of Purim is about the fall of Haman and the rise of Mordechai. How, then, are we to make sense of the Talmud's demand that on Purim we know not "the difference between 'Cursed is Haman' and 'Blessed is Mordechai' when this distinction is what constitutes the very essence and purpose of the holiday!
Obviously, then, we must understand these words of the Talmud in a deeper way. Indeed, interpretations are abundant. What follows is one of my personal favorites presented by one of the great moral voices of our generation, the Lubavitcher Rebbe, delivered at a Purim assembly in 1970, some six months after Woodstock.
Woodstock: The Real Story
There are two levels of consciousness, the Rebbe explained, in which one can distinguish between "Cursed is Haman" and "Blessed is Mordechai." The first is pragmatic and materialistic; the second is soulful and eternal. One speaks in the name of self-interest and personal gain, the other in the name of ultimate destiny and meaning.
From a pragmatic and materialistic world outlook, Haman's path ought to be rejected, and Mordechai's lifestyle embraced. Indeed, many of our parents and grandparents employed the pragmatic argument in order to persuade us to live the good and decent life.
"If you wish to get into a good college," they told us, "you should keep away from drugs and alcohol. If you want to graduate with honors, you must abstain from promiscuity and sexual frivolousness. If you desire to be hired by a successful firm or company, you need to demonstrate responsibility, consistency and trust. If you want to generate a good income, live in a beautiful home, take three vacations a year, and own three cars and a summer home, you need to get up early each morning, put in a full day at the office, remain loyal to your spouse and stay away from any dangerous and tripy behavior. If you wish to be respected socially and invited to upper-class receptions, stay away from any form of racism, bigotry and violence. You must behave like a 'mentch.'
"And," they continued, "if you manage to give some charity on the side, you might even be honored one day at fund-raising dinners and have your name engraved on a building or two. When you hit old age, you will retire with dignity, accompanied by a hefty savings account and time for golf, recreation and relaxation. If you make enough money, you may even establish a foundation in your name."
This is, admittedly, a nice vision. It promotes decent behavior, loyal citizenship, hard work and faithful family commitments. It works for many youngsters and has proven successful with many American Jews. Yet it proved futile with millions of American and Jewish youngsters who in the 1960s revolted against the "Establishment" and embraced a lifestyle of boundless frivolousness, uninhibited intimacy and uncontrolled acid trips.
Their historical rebellion culminated with what has become a cultural symbol -- the Woodstock Music and Art Fair in August of '69 that drew a half million people to a pasture in Sullivan County, N.Y. For four days the pilgrims experimented with extraordinary quantities of drugs, "free" love, and minds and hearts open to anything and everything. The music, which began Friday afternoon, Aug. 15 and continued until mid-morning of Monday, Aug. 18, captured the wild life of the flower generation, as their teachers and parents looked on in shock, grief, awe or a combination of the three.
Why did an entire generation of young, bright and intelligent Americans reject the pragmatic and sensible path of their parents and grandparents? Was it an expression of immature naivete and youthful stupidity? Was it simply one hell of a party, legitimizing the hedonistic temptations of the youth? Or was there something deeper at stake?
The Lubavitcher Rebbe, in his Purim 1970 address, saw it as something far more profound and existential. Large segments of American youth were consciously or subconsciously rejecting the pragmatic and self-serving philosophy of their teachers and parents because it failed to address the depth of their souls. It spoke in the name of financial security, comfortable living and a respectable social status; it attempted to impress them with the superficial glamour of a rich home, dazzling clothes and shallow entertainment.
But what about the idealistic cords inherent in the soul of our youth? What about the passion for truth emblematic of the human spirit? What about human beings' quest to touch infinity and live a life of meaning? On this count the Establishment failed them miserably then, as it does so often now. Not because it demanded too much, but because it expected too little. It reduced souls to machines, spirits to robots and humans capable of moral greatness to self-centered creatures.
When the distinction between "Cursed is Haman" and "Blessed is Mordechai" is founded merely on materialistic, self-serving and pragmatic benefits rather than on the deepest passions and commitments of the human soul, the youthful spirit is likely to reject it and, in his or her rebelliousness, travel to the opposite extreme where the distinctions between Haman and Mordechai are blurred and all moral standards become hazy. This indeed has become the well-known liberal legacy of the Sixties generation, in which Haman and Mordechai have both come to be seen as equally nice guys.
Shattering the Myth
This is the meaning behind the Talmud's demand that on Purim we must lose our knowledge of the distinction between Haman's evil and Mordechai's goodness. There is no question that even on Purim we must know the difference between good and evil, between a life committed to building the world and one dedicated to destroying it. Never are we permitted to forget the difference between a lifestyle of morality vs. one of immorality.
What the Talmud is telling us, however, is that for the distinction between the two to resonate deeply and eternally, we must first destroy the superficial basis for the distinction between the two paths of life. For morality to resonate and endure in the hearts of the youth, it must speak in the name of truth, not in the name of comfort; it must address the soul, not only the body; it must stimulate the heart, not merely the instincts.
This, the Rebbe concluded, was the drive behind the rebelliousness of the youth. These kids were not bad or malicious; they were confused and frustrated. They felt the urge to destroy the superficial distinctions between “Haman” and “Mordechai,” yearning for someone to teach them about the true and profound distinctions between the two lifestyles and philosophies, founded on the soul's profoundest awareness that man was created to become larger than human, and that in a life committed to goodness, kindness, morality and the service of G-d the soul encounters itself in its profoundest dreams, tragedies and hopes.
For it is only after we know not the difference between Haman and Mordechai on a superficial level, that we can discover the difference on an internal, soul-level.