“Drink until you cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai.” — Talmud
Purim celebrates the survival of the Jewish people, during the Persian Empire, circa 400BCE. A plot had been hatched, a kind of “final solution,” to liquidate them. The holiday of Purim celebrates their survival.
The story begins with Mordecai refusing to bow down to Haman, one of the king’s viziers. Seeking revenge for the slight, Haman plots to kill not only Mordecai, but all of the Jewish people in Persia. Esther, Mordecai’s niece, risks her life by revealing to her husband, the Persian king, that she is Jewish. As a result, Haman, the man behind the genocidal plot, as well as his ten sons is hanged from the gallows.
If you attended religious services, on Purim, you would more than likely hear a sermon about Mordecai’s and Ether’s courage, Haman’s iniquity, and perhaps God’s hidden hand in the whole affair. It’s hidden because, in point of fact, God is not mentioned even once in the entire Book of Esther. Purim is a joyous holiday, but one that starts off in a minor key. After all, being threatened with genocide and surviving at the eleventh hour is certainly a serious matter.
Now here is the curious thing, which constitutes a religious mystery: As part of the ritual celebration of Purim, Jews are commanded to drink. How much? They must drink until they cannot tell the difference between Haman and Mordecai, i.e., until they can no longer differentiate between good and evil. (Yes, it’s true that Jews are commanded to drink on other holidays, which includes imbibing four gasses of wine on Passover, but not with the explicit purpose of getting drunk.)
What an odd commandant, being that those who embrace the Jewish faith are required, on the other 364 days a year, to lead a righteous life, one that is upright and dignified! (And all the more curious considering that Haman is not just any old villain, but a genocidal monster.) What sense, then, can we make of Purim, with its requirement to do just the opposite, i.e., to employ alcohol to drown out moral awareness? What is it, then, about the battle between good and evil such that one would seek to rid oneself of it?
Of course, moral reprobates flee their conscience — whether through alcohol, drugs, food, sexuality, distraction, business, and through many other means — 365 days a year, whereas the person celebrating Purim is commanded to drown out his conscience only one day a year, and to do so as part of a meaningful religious ritual celebration. Needless to say, that’s an enormous difference, but why be required to dwell amongst the devotees of Bacchus, even once a year?
The Burden of Moral Consciousness
Moral consciousness is a source of human dignity and nobility. Only human beings can stand upright and be upright. But it’s a mixed blessing, for the pangs of conscience can hamstring our will and cause restless sleep. Even if we choose the path of righteousness, we can still find ourselves uncertain in our decisions and actions. One can sympathize with Robert Frost who wrote, “Me for the hills, where I don’t have to decide.”
Indeed, the Garden of Eden story treats moral consciousness as part of the punishment that Adam and Eve received for their disobedience to God. They had been living a life of innocence, an animalistic existence, until they ate an apple from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They then became moral beings, but also became aware of themselves as mortal beings, aware that their days were numbered. Their loss of innocence is symbolized by their expulsion from the Garden of Eve. Of course, the story of Adam and Eve resonates with us, for it is the story of that fallen state of affairs known as “the human condition.”
Is Purim, then, akin to what William James referred to as a moral holiday, the type of release from the moral, social and cultural constraints that people seek on Halloween or New Years Eve? It would appear to be, but there’s more to it than that. The poet Wordsworth found the often wondrous days of childhood to be an “intimation of immortality,” but it could be argued that drunkenness too provides an intimation, for it grants us a taste of the freedom from constraints, coupled with the wholeness, completeness, fullness, and oneness that we yearn for and hope to an infinitely greater extent in the millennium.
Of course, in the state of drunkenness, we possess a greater sense of wholeness and completeness, as well as a temporary respite from inner-constraints, fears, doubts and worries, than we do when we are sober — which is why people will drink than — but the sense of freedom and wholeness that alcohol provides is predicated on self-oblivion. The problem here, though, is that when we are intoxicated we are in the dark, lacking the true eternity of illuminated consciousness.
The essential goal of mysticism is to attain fullness and completeness, but without darkness, i.e., without self-oblivion. I.E., the goal is to have wholeness, fullness, and completeness while keeping the interior lights on. In any case, that is why intoxication can only give us a vague taste of what we long for. Alas, it will not allow us back into Eden, for angels with flaming swords, act like bouncers, blocking the gates, preventing us from reentering.
Do we have to settle for an intimation of the blessed state, on the holiday of Purim? And do we have to wait until the millennium — which seems no less a mythic notion than the Elysian Fields — to attain the blessed state itself? Not according to the mystics. As we have been suggesting, they seek eternity, infinity and the absolute not in drunkenness, nor in the millennium, but now. Let us see if the Jewish mystics might offer us clues, to getting there. Perhaps there exists a doorway into eternity…
We are familiar with the theistic notion of God as active agent in the affairs of human beings. The Kabbalists don’t deny that biblical notion of deity, but they posit a notion of God as infinite, as an un-manifest nothingness, bereft of determination and distinction. They refer to God, in this state of being (or nonbeing) as the Ein Sof. Out of the Ein Sof, out of the infinite and eternal, emerges the opposites — good and evil, masculine and feminine, beautiful and ugly, heaven and hell, wise and foolish, summer and winter, joy and sorrow, and all the many other pairs of opposites, which in turn give rise to all the beings of this created world, the “shoes and ships and sealing wax, the cabbages and kings,” And so, here, oneness, eternality and true being is symbolized neither by the Garden of Eden, nor by drunkenness, nor by the Millennium that awaits us at the end of time.
Rather, the notion of the Ein Sof invites us to transcend the dualities of self and other, of man and God. It invites us to attain a different state of consciousness, one in which we see that who we really are, our fundamental reality, is not our personality. Odd though it may sound, our true identity consists of the Ein Sof within each of us, the interior infinite and eternal. Yes, this does sound like Hindu Advaita mysticism. Indeed, it sounds like the notion that our true being, (the Atman) is ultimately coincident with the true being of the universe (Brahman), which the Hindu mystics refer to as the “Self.” As one of the foremost scholars of Jewish mysticism, Aryeh Kaplan, stated in his book Jewish Meditation (Schocken, 1995),
“What is the real me? A hint of the answer can be found in the Hebrew word for “I,” ani. It is significant to note that if the letters of the word ani are rearranged, they spell the word ayn or ayin, which denotes nothingness. This would seem to imply that the real “me” is the nothingness within me.”
Of course, it’s one thing to read in a book or essay that your true identity is the interior nothingness, which is coincident with God, as Ein Sof. It’s quite another matter to realize it, to know it with the same certainty with which one slaps one’s thigh and declares, “This is me.” How, then, to attain the realization of one’s true identity?
One path is that of meditation, but there are many other paths as well. As Carlos Castaneda’s teacher, Don Juan Matus, recommended, it is important to choose a path with heart. Certainly, it is important to choose a path that is in accord with one’s personality and one’s predilections. We’ll have more to say about this subsequently.
Furthermore, 10,000 questions emerge, such as what is the relation of this realm of illusion, which we inhabit — this cave of shadows, as Plato calls it, this Matrix, as the filmmakers call it — to true reality? After all, even in the awakened state of mystical consciousness, the battle of good and evil continues to rage on. And like Arjuna from the Bhagavad Gita, one is required to play one’s part in the battle, ultimately illusory though the battle may be. There is a force in the universe that dreams this cosmic drama. As William Blake expressed it, “Eternity is in love with the creations of time.” Having awakened, we can be all the better at playing our part, and win plaudits from the angels cheering us on.
The Author Proposes a Toast
We began this discussion seeking to understand the mystery of Purim. We found its commandment to become intoxicated an expression of the yearning to transcend the conflicts and burdens of the human condition. What can we say of a god who commands us to get drunk, even if only once a year? He is neither prude nor sanctimonious prig, nor overly scrupulous fanatic. He insists that we be upright, but not uptight, that we be serious, but that we possess enough self-effacing humor to avoid a hubristic sense of self-importance.
A moral rectitude that is unforgiving leads a person to hold all the world in contempt or else leads him to formulate a Manichean division of humanity into those who are righteous versus those who are irretrievable iniquitous. But a morality coupled with charity is conducive to sympathy for our brothers in suffering. Finally, a surfeit of seriousness leads to an emotionally joyless heaviness, which is itself is a deadly sin. Better to follow the advice of Proverbs, “A joyful heart maketh for a cheerful countenance.”
In point of fact, the holiday of Purim is a festive holiday, replete with feasting, wearing outrageous costumes, dancing, klezmer music, joking and other forms of making merry. Thus the divine commandment to get drunk, on Purim, is of a piece with a joyous gratitude towards life. But although joyous, it is far from being merely frivolous; for one thing, those who observe Purim are required to fast from morning to the Purim festival at sundown. Religious fasting expresses the religious need for purification and atonement. Fasting focuses our energies, reminding us that we are involving ourselves in an occasion of importance.
Purim is similar to holidays like Passover and Hanukah, in so far as the Jewish people celebrate their deliverance from persecution from their oppressors. But during Purim, not only are we delivered from evil, we are even for a time, delivered from our bondage to the very categories of good and evil. It is important to understand, though, that the mystic’s liberation from these categories is not the ersatz liberation of the moral relativist, postmodernist or nihilist, who are driven by a demonic flight from the normative dimension of reality, from the “hound of heaven.” On the contrary, the mystical apprehension of the world is energized by a powerful spiritual enthusiasm. It allows one to answer the call to virtue and heroism, with an alacrity born of joyful wisdom.
Therefore, wherever we may be on the road to mystic vision, if we must get drunk, may it be with yearning for divine illumination. L’Chaim!