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Adar 11, 5750

The Joy of Purim


Written by the rabbi

Dedicated to the speedy recovery of
Asher Ishaayahu Ben Rivka

1. Two Types of Joy: Exclusive and Inclusive
2. The "Point" of Intoxication on Purim
3. Types of Joy
4. The "Sasson" of Purim
5. The Freedom of Purim
6. A Summary of the Joy of Purim

Two Types of Joy: Exclusive and Inclusive
Though in Judaism we find two distinct approaches to joy, they need not be viewed as contradicting one another.

The first or these two approaches encourages the individual to begin by nurturing a single positive trait or practice that he already possesses - for every individual possesses at least one positive point. This method is one of Hassidic philosophys unique contributions to the field of self-improvement. According to Hassidic thought, the penitent must forget all past transgressions and "accentuate the positive." Indeed, the self-mortifying sinner merely demonstrates his attachment to sin, for what other reason could he possibly have for dwelling upon it so. This approach bases itself upon the principle that every individual participates, in some way or another, to the spiritual perfection of the world, even if he is unaware of it. Accordingly, It is inconceivable that a person not possess some sort of positive trait or deed that makes him a partner in the spiritual perfection of the world. Furthermore, because in every generation the lump sum of meritorious deeds is continuously growing, it is inevitable that creation will eventually reach perfection. All the same, the more good deeds we perform, the more we contribute in hastening the long-awaited redemption. It is therefore a matter of prime importance that a person concentrate on his good points and be happy about them. Once this has been done, all that is undesirable in a person will naturally fall to the wayside.

Because it limits itself to seeing only part of the picture, the sort of joy which results from focusing on good points alone cannot be said to be "complete," and when expressing such joy one must be careful not to get carried away to the point where he embraces his negative traits as well.


A second approach to joy is the one which is taken in the Hebrew month of Adar. The joy which Jews feel in Adar does not spring from with any particular theme or aspect but covers and embraces all. Therefore, this sort of joy is complete and inclusive in nature, and "When the month of Adar begins our joy increases." Adar represents the sealing of the year and its summing up. From this standpoint an individual can see how all of the events of the year were for the best, and hence can understand that there is really no evil in the world; even that which on the face of it appears to be evil, in reality serves to lead the way to more positive things. And though a person who performs an evil act will of course be forced to suffer the consequences for it in both this world and the World to Come, as far as humanity as a whole is concerned such behavior is of little consequence. For, the world will continue to advance and improve by means of such evil. Behavior of this sort either leads directly to good, or serves to bring about the good indirectly, by demonstrating the horrors of evil. We find this happening this on Purim, wherein the evil steps taken by Haman in fact brought about good for the Jewish people. When all was said and done, Hamans scheme spared the Jews much suffering and supplied them with a very unique type of joy. Armed with such an all-embracing approach, ones joy spills over into all areas, and one can appreciate the words of the Book of Ester, "Nahafokh Hu," i.e., even that which began as evil will turn out to be good. This is the deep significance of the words of the Sages who say that on Purim "a person is obligated to become intoxicated to the point where he can no longer tell the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai." An individual should strive to reach a level wherein he knows not what was better for the Jews - the evil of Haman or the righteousness of Mordecai. For, while it is true that, in the final analysis, even evil leads to good, in order to see this one must possess all-encompassing and inclusive vision. This is the essential message of the month of Adar. It represents the sort of inclusive vision which spans the entire year, and by virtue of which one is capable of discerning the hand of God directing historical events. Hence, "our joy increases" in Adar, and on the festival of Purim itself our joy reaches such a level that we see that everything is truly good (not merely "for the best") - and for this one must even become intoxicated.

The "Point" of Intoxication on Purim

The Talmud teaches us in the name of Rabba that, "A person is obligated to become intoxicated to the point where he can no longer tell the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai" (Megillah 7). Rabbenu Efraim brings the opinion of Rabbenu Nissim, the "Ran," who holds that this is to be understood literally - i.e., one must in fact drink until he is unable to distinguish between them at all - and is puzzled by this, for such intoxication leads to undesirable behavior. Therefore, he concludes that, in practice, the law does not follow Rabbas position. The lesson to be learned here, then, is that unchecked drinking which causes damage to others and leads to sin is forbidden.

The Tosafists explain that by cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai Rabba is actually referring to the entire hymn recited after the reading of the Scroll of Ester on Purim. Because it is lengthy and unfamiliar, one who is in a state of intoxication is liable to become confused between the various persons mentioned therein.

Another opinion understands the "to the point where" obligation to mean "to the verge of the point where" but not "beyond the verge of the point where." This implies a lesser degree of intoxication than the previous opinions.

The opinion of Rabbi Yaakov Moelin, the "Maharil," as it appears in the Ramas notes on the Shulchan Arukh, is that an individual must drink until he falls asleep; in this manner he can no longer tell the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordecai. The concept of sleeping on Purim can be understood according to the following principle: On Purim an individual must reach the point of ignorance. Unlike the rest of the year during which Judaism considers ignorance a tragedy - for, in the face of the grand disorder of this world one must be capable of differentiating between good and bad - on Purim it becomes clear that the whole "mess" was actually for the best, and that human knowledge, woefully lacking as it is in grasping Gods ways, is largely inaccurate. Therefore, a Jews duty on Purim is to reach a point if ignorance. But not just any ignorance - ignorance that derives from pious love for God, for all that appears to be evil in this world has, in truth, been arranged so by the Almighty for the best.

The plain meaning of Rabbas statement, though, is that a Jew has to reach such a level of drunkenness on Purim that he does not know what is more important, the wickedness of Haman or the righteousness of Mordecai. In a sober state, the fact that Mordecais righteousness appears to have undoubtedly aided the Jews more than Hamans wickedness makes this a well-nigh unattainable goal. Therefore, one is commanded to become intoxicated on Purim. Intoxication causes the world to appear to be just fine; when in a drunken state man believes that everything is good: Mordecai is good; Haman is good too, in the sense that were it not for him the Purim holiday would never have been established. This is what is known as "Hitbasmut," i.e., intoxication to the point where one becomes more open and freed from the "cords" of everyday thinking. In such a state a person can appreciate the good that sprouted from the sinister ways of Haman, to the point where, out of abundant freedom and joy, one can say, "blessed is the Almighty who created the wicked Haman and gave us the Purim holiday." This is the reason that the Purim feast is held during the day and not at night: It was during the day it became clear that everything had turned out for the best.


We have seen, then, that among the commentators who accepted Rabbas opinion there are various approaches insofar as the desired level of intoxication on Purim is concerned. The Rama ruled that all opinions are acceptable so long as the intoxication is the result of selfless love for God. (This very ruling reflects the principal that the idea of Purim is that everything is for the best, and that every approach has a place.)

Types of Joy
Three of the types of joy that receive mention in Jewish law are "Oneg," "Simcha" and "Sasson." Oneg generally appears in connection with Sabbath; Simcha is bound up with holiday celebration; and Sasson is associated with Purim, Brit Milah (religious circumcision), and a variety of other Torah commandments.

Oneg. Oneg is an inner matter that does not express itself outwardly, a sort of inner happiness that can be discerned only in the eyes of one who possesses it. In a way, it mirrors the concept of Sabbath itself. Rabbi Tzaddok explains that the Sabbath does not represent an upheaval; it does not depart from the weekly cycle, but is the peak of the week itself. Sabbath is part and parcel with the week and derives its power therein, from the very essence of the week. Therefore, what a person prepares during the course of the week is what he will enjoy on Sabbath. For one who during the course of the week studied Torah, the Sabbath is for him the essence of the Torah; for one who busies himself with kind deeds, Sabbath becomes the essence of good deeds. It is therefore understandable that Sabbath does not annul mourning customs, and with the close of Sabbath the bereaved continue to mourn. (This is not true of Jewish holidays. The holidays embody a new and additional joy from without and therefore annul mourning practices). And because the purpose of Sabbath is not to bring on new joy, one need not buy new clothes or foods. Rather, one wears the best of what he already has. During the entire week, a person is occupied with mundane tasks in this imperfect world of ours, and on Sabbath there is spiritual uplift toward inner perfection and sanctity (Even if a Jew does not observe the Sabbath, the day is exists regardless, entirely independent of the actions of the Jewish people. In this sense Sabbath is unlike the holidays which are sanctified through the Sanhedrin High Court.) Sabbath involves an inward turning to a higher plane, to a perfect world, to a world in which everything is arranged by God. In this manner, one who wishes to attain a level of Oneg must look inward to uncover a deeper and more essential understanding of things.

Simcha. The joy felt on Jewish holidays results from the revelation of an exalted idea. And because the idea of holiday observance "descends from above," burrowing itself into mundane daily existence, the Jewish holidays are on a lower spiritual level than the Sabbath and more attached to existence, and therefore it is permissible to perform therein some of those labors forbidden on Sabbath. With each holiday a new idea reveals itself in the world: Every Shavuot holiday the concept of the giving of the Torah reveals itself; every Passover the concept of freedom from slavery is revealed, causing a Jew to become so delighted with the wonderful gift he possesses that the joy bursts forth. Therefore, holiday observance calls for the consumption of meat and wine, and the purchase of new clothes; all of these things are exterior factors which lead to joy.

Sasson. In the Book of Ester it is written: "For the Jews there was light, gladness, joy, and honor." The Talmud explains that "light" is synonymous with Torah; "gladness" is the gladness of the festival; and "joy" - Sasson - represents "Brit Milah" (ritual circumcision). The association of Sasson with Milah is reflected in the verse which is recited during the Brit Milah ceremony: "I rejoice over your word like one who finds abundant spoils."

-Sasson, then, is the sort of joy a person experiences upon ridding himself unnecessary waste, and it represents a very elevated level of happiness. In order to attain such joy one must sometimes suffer great affliction. Death illustrates this well. Death entails an "incision," as it were, in order to separate the good from the bad. With the Original Sin, death was decreed upon humankind, but in addition to being punishment it was also a sort of rectification, for, from the time of this grave transgression onward, good and evil were mixed together within man, and were it not for death, by which the good and the evil are separated from one another, man would be unable to free himself from the evil inside of him and would be forced to remain forever on the same spiritual level. Hence, death effects the separation of two ingredients which, in the present world, only spoil one another. And though the bond between body and soul allows an individual to either ascend or fall, after the death of the first human being, it was no longer possible to ascend ad infinitum, because the body prevented this. Therefore, the moment that a person dies, if while living he or she possessed an overall positive personality, the evil traits disappear, and this is his rectification. Consequently, even death is for the best. It follows that Brit Milah is also referred to as Sasson, for with his circumcision the newborn is freed from the unnecessary foreskin. Sasson erupts after one is freed from the undesirable which stands in the way of joy and vitality.

The "Sasson" of Purim
On Purim, not only do we free ourselves from evil, but we also transform the evil into good. The unique aspect of this holiday is that on Purim even mundane physical existence in which the evil inclination thrives was transformed into good. Therefore, we rejoice in the material, for the source of evil is in the material, but when it is changed into good, its level is higher. In the words of the Sages on the verse: "And God saw all that He had done, and, behold, it was very good." - "Good," refers to mans good inclination; "very" refers to the evil inclinations. When the material is refined and made good, it becomes even better than the spiritual, and this is complete joy - the joy of understanding that even that which appears to be bad is actually good. This is the Sasson of Purim.

The Freedom of Purim
The Talmud describes to us how God suspended Mount Sinai over the Jewish people like a huge basin and said to them: "If you choose to receive the Torah, fine; but if not, this will be your grave." It follows that Israels receiving the Torah was non-binding because it was forcibly imposed upon them. The Maharal of Prague was greatly puzzled by this. If, indeed, the Torah was forced upon the Jews, why is it that we find the Sages praising the Israelites for having exclaimed, "We agree to uphold [the Torah]; [now] let us hear [what is in] it"? The Maharal begins by offering the solution that initially the Israelites agreed to receive the Torah, but, when the moment of truth arrived, they backed down. Therefore, God indeed forced them to receive it. The Maharal, though, discards this scenario, explaining that it is inconceivable that the Jewish people, who were adamant in their loyalty to God to the point where they agreed to take upon themselves the yoke of Torah even before hearing what it contained, would back down at the last moment. The Maharal therefore concludes that the purpose of this Midrash is to teach us creations dependency upon Torah. The Torah is the soul of the universe and what keeps it operating at any given moment, and God looked into the Torah when creating the world. The Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, in his classic "Nefesh HaChaim," based himself upon this concept when he wrote that if Torah study ceases for even one moment the universe would be destroyed. Therefore, God cannot leave the decision of receiving the Torah up to Israel, for that which is detrimental to the continued existence of the world cannot be left to freedom of choice. Though the Jews willingness to become obligated in the Torah was exemplary on their part, when it came down to it God did not ask them if they were interested, but forced it upon them. Some say that this coercion took the form of the incredible wonders and miracles that accompanied the giving of the Torah; when the Jewish people were exposed to Gods greatness, they were unable to refuse.

This method of coercion-through-miracles came to an end in the days of Achashverosh - the miracle of Purim was the final blow. Truthfully, this miracle was different in nature than previous miracles. For, the hand of God was nowhere to be seen. Indeed, God is not mentioned even once in the Book of Ester. The events of the Purim story played themselves out in perfect timing, reversing the tide completely such that not only were the Jews not annihilated as planned, but also they destroyed their benighted foes. But this was to be the final miracle. Just as the dawn is the end of the nighttime, the miracle of Purim was the last of the revealed miracles (cf. Yoma 29a). One might say that with Purim the era of the Written Torah - an era characterized by an imposing and overwhelming heavenly state of existence - came to a close. From here on things drop to a lower plane of existence, "our turn" as it were the era of the Oral Torah. The Purim story is the transitional stage between the epoch of the Written Tradition and that of the Oral Tradition. The Written Torah is that which descends from above through prophecy as if forced upon us; the Oral Torah, on the other hand, is dependent upon our efforts and our free-willed desire. Hence, "the Jews established it and accepted it upon themselves" (Ester 9:27).

Because Purim is situated in a period of transition its status is the subject of some uncertainty. It is unclear whether its observation is of Torah or Rabbinic origin. Hence Esters question: "Can you establish me for generations?" - I.e., Is it still possible to include the Book of Ester in the Written Torah?
The renewed receiving of the Torah on Purim finds expression in our involvement in the continuation of the Torah, an act which, because we perform it out of our own free will, is accompanied by a special kind of joy. We find this idea in the writings of Rabbi A. Kook, where he explains that true joy stems not from the fact that it is true and ought to be such but from the exercise of a persons free choice and desire.

A Summary of the Joy of Purim
The Joy of Purim possesses two central aspects: Firstly, because even what had initially been evil was transformed into good, the joy of Purim is limitless; secondly, on Purim the Jewish people received the Torah through free will.
And these two concepts are in fact connected to one another. For, a person who understands that even the evil in the world is essentially good freely accepts his situation. Therefore, an individuals joy on Purim stems from two things - from freedom in action and from the recognition that even the physical realm is transformed into good.
The Sages teach that Purim will not be annulled even in the Days to Come, and it is possible to explain that this is because of these two fundamental concepts: Just as Purim is the only holiday in which the evil was transformed into good, so too, in the Days to Come there will be no evil whatsoever. Similarly, regarding freedom in the future, there will be no commandments and obligations, for people will do everything out of true inner desire and freedom.


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