The Obligation (on Purim) of Inebriation

PurimBurst 2010 / 5770
Inspiried by R. Tsadok HaKohen, Likutei Amarim, essay 5
Sarah Yehudit Schneider

Purim.party2One is obligated to drink on Purim until you don’t know the difference between cursing Haman and blessing Mordecai (Shulchan Aruch 695:2).

The Ari explains the tikun that happens through this peculiar mitzvah: In every fallen person or sinful moment there is a sliver of God that enables that opposer-of-good to exist for there is only one source of life, and that is HaShem, the One-and-Only-Sustainer-of-Worlds. And these poor slivers of God trapped within the sociopath are coerced to enliven his wayward deeds—even when he scorns all that God holds dear. The spark of life inside that opposer-of-good is actually a chip off our very own block, a holy brother sequestered by the other side. The problem is how to send love to our comrade-spark without energizing its malevolent captor—how to keep the spark alight till its rescue can be arranged.

That, says the Ari, is the secret and power of Purim and, in particular, its mitzvah of inebriation.

When a person, in their drunken state, accidently blesses Haman (though he meant to bless Mordekhai), he sends light to the holy spark trapped inside Haman [a symbol for the evil realms which includes all our enemies both inside and out]. Yet because the blessing was unconscious and accidental, it does not empower the Amalakite, himself, only the spark that’s held captive there. [And the stronger the spark, the greater its might to tug the system toward the light—captor and all.] (Pri Eitz Chayim, Shaar Chanukha and Purim, Chapter 6)

Most of the time, an absent mind produces failure, fall, and damage. “A mitzvah without intention is like a body without a soul.”1 The sages teach that witlessness is the cause of all misdeeds. “No one sins except if a spirit of folly overcomes him for a moment” (TB Sota 3a).

But, on Purim, the opposite is true. We actually cultivate folly—there is a certain tikun that only occurs when we suffer a lapse of awareness. Presence of mind is our perennial goal but on Purim we seek to escape it. The explanation is as follows:

In general, the power of a mitzvah’s tikun is in proportion to its mindfulness. A mitzvah performed by rote, accomplishes minimal advancement—a spark gets extracted but remains earthbound.2 It lacks the wings of love and fear to carry it aloft. Like a precious stone mined from the earth, and left lying on the ground, the spark remains below. The more passion and intention one brings to that deed, the higher the spark ascends. A mitzvah performed with lucid awareness—the selfless desire to serve good and delight God—that is the purest of motives and it brings the greatest tikun.3

But what happens to those earthbound sparks, released but left behind when we perform a mitzvah by rote? Are they doomed to eternal limbo? The Ari says, No! As soon as we come back and perform that same mitzvah with greater intention, or recite that prayer with concentration, this new service “pierces the firmament” and carries with it the sparks that could not rise on their own.

There is no wasted mitzvah. Even when we space out altogether and barely take advantage of the potential of the moment, spiritual work is done. The deed itself extracts the spark. And the next day or week or year or lifetime, when we come back and perform it again, this time with full kavanna, those previous sparks gets lifted by these ones with greater oomph.

R. Tsadok extends this principle to the Passover sedar which is the only time of year that eating becomes a full-fledged mitzvah, meaning that we actually recite a blessing over that act of consumption: ”Blessed are You HaShem…who has commended us to eat this matzah (or maror or, when relevant, Korban Pesach).” Eating thus becomes an act of holy service. And, just as we learned about prayer—that a passage recited with soulful intent will uplift all the times it was spoken by rote—so does the Sedar raise all the earthbound sparks produced by unconscious eating. These three moments of mitzvah-eating (the only three of the whole year) can even redeem a spark from food that was eaten with gluttonous intent as long as it was kosher. The Sedar can raise our neutral deeds and wrong intentions, but it cannot reverse the callusing of soul that comes from forbidden foods.

Yet that, precisely, is the power of Purim—it is the one day when folly, itself, becomes a mitzvah. And thus it can redeem all the foolish (and fallen) deeds that were performed throughout the year. The implications are profound, for we have already learned that: “A person does not sin, except when a spirit of folly overtakes him.” When eating becomes a mitzvah it redeems our gluttonous consumption—when folly becomes a mitzvah, it raises our foolish deeds—a Talmudic euphemism for sins, as we have seen.

This explains Purim’s legendary power to effect teshuva in a way that even surpasses the day that is specially designated for teshuva, our Day of Awe called Yom Kippur. Everyone knows the Ari’s famous teaching based on the Hebrew words for Purim, and Yom Kippurim (K’Purim); where the difference between them is simply the letter K’ (which, as a prefix, means, “like” or “similar to.”). This hints to the secret relationship between these two days where, Yom Kippur becomes, literally, the day that is k’ (like) Purim. The Hebrew language thus ascribes the primary (and trend-setting) holiness to Purim. Yom Kippur strives for Purim’s sanctity but never quite measures up. It comes close enough to be called, “like Purim,” but never supersedes.

On Yom Kippur the reconciliation of our relationship with G‑d is the fruit of conscious inner work—scrupulous confession, heartfelt apology, and fierce commitment to change. On Yom Kippur, the reward is in proportion to the effort. Our soul is cleansed from the flaws that we admit (and lament) on that awesome holy day.

Yet, the grace of Purim extends to even our unconscious flaws—the sins we continue to deny—the still-fallen sparks connected to our soul that provide life juice to the Haman’s of the world (including our own narcissistic layers of self). The light of Yom Kippur does not penetrate that dark, outer edge of our psyche. Only Purim, with its mitzvah of inebriation, can enliven the sparks trapped within our blind spots without providing succor to the delusions that ensnare them.

Yet, says the Ari, this mission can only succeed if we relinquish conscious control and trust HaShem to guide our instincts on this day of holy folly. When a person fulfills the mitzvah of drinking on Purim his ego lapses into a quasi-prophetic reverie (called tardema). Then the pintila yid takes the reins and we slip into the groove of unconscious awareness (because the self, i.e. the ego is anesthetized with wine). And it is here that the Purim tikun occurs. In this exalted state of Divinely-sanctioned folly, the subliminal wisdom of our primal self, for a moment, leads the way—and assures that we will “bless Haman” (mistakenly) on this irreverent holy day. And that blessing transmits life-juice to the captive sparks held there and converts them into born-again emissaries of the light.

The danger is if the ego is only faking sleep, and secretly exploits this unguarded moment to advance its hedonistic interests. In that case, the nurture directed toward the holy sparks sequestered by the other side gets waylaid by their captors and the mission backfires. Instead of strengthening the sparks it fuels the narcissistic delusions that imprison them.

There are those who weigh the risks against the benefits of this mission and reckon that it isn’t worth the gamble. Better to drink a little more than usual and go to sleep (literally) and fulfill the mitzvah that way, than take the chance you’ll crash and burn and cause more harm than good. For slumber is another way of losing the distinction between cursing Haman and blessing Mordekhai.4

One who chooses this latter option must remember, nonetheless:

The obligation to drink more wine than usual on Purim is one of the specific mitzvot of Purim day and there are deep reasons and secrets for it. One who refrains from fulfilling this mitzvah because he doesn’t understand it cuts himself off from the community of Israel and rebuffs the yoke of rabbinic authority (Bina L’ittim Drush 21, Nitay Gavriel 73:1 fn1).

The mitzvah of “drinking to inebriation on Purim until you don’t know the difference between blessing Mordekhai and cursing Haman” is actually the spiritual equivalent of matanot l’evyonim (giving charity to the poor) another mitzvah that is specifically obligated on this day. Our holy sparks trapped by the other side—be they prisoners of war, prisoners of Zion, prisoners of addiction, prisoners of our own narcissism, prisoners of cults, prisoners of ignorance—these captive sparks are spiritually impoverished and there is virtually no other way to get rejuvenating lights to them. Any resources directed their way get intercepted by their captors, and that, sadly, causes more harm than good.

Purim is the one day of the year when these destitute sparks get filled to the brim with sweet, clean, invigorating lights…and there is no pilfering by the other side. And now, fortified by their Purim manot, these holy (but estranged) sparks get raised by our folly, awakened by our reverie (tardema), cleansed by the mitzvah, and transformed from dispirited prisoners into missionaries of the light. What a great and holy deed is the mitzvah of inebriating on Purim.

Seize the moment! Bring all your sparks to the party (which only happens when your whole self comes along),5 for that fulfills the Purim motto: NO SPARK LEFT BEHIND!

Let it be, HaShem, that as individuals, as members of the community of Israel, and the larger world community, that we should, through our holy Purim festivities, draw a flow of joy and revealed good into the heart, bones, cells, and spaces of your creation and of every creature in it. May our celebrations of eating, inebriating, dancing and learning be pleasing in Your eyes. Please guide and inspire our study that Your will and Your holy Torah’s truths should fill our hearts and transform our lives in ways that are only good.

גל עיני ואביטה נפלאות מתורתך

Open my eyes and I will behold the wonders of your Torah (Psalms 119:18).

A Related Chassidic Story

During his stay in Mezritch, the Rav of Kolbishov saw an old man come to the Maggid and ask him to suggest a tikun that would wash away his sins. “Go home,” said the Maggid. “Write all your sins down on a slip of paper and bring it to me.” When the man brought his list, the Maggid glanced at it briefly and comforted him as follows: “Go home. All will be well.” But later the Rav of Kolbishov observed the Maggid reread the list and laugh at every line. This strange behavior shocked the Rav and actually even annoyed him. “How could someone reputedly holy laugh at another’s sins!”

For years he did not forget the incident and remained bothered by it. Then, one Shabbat, he heard someone quote a teaching from the Baal Shem Tov:

“Everyone knows the Talmudic dictum that ‘no one commits a sin unless a spirit of folly overcomes him.’ The Talmud is teaching us that a sinner is a fool. And if a sage encountered a fool who was spouting silly, childish tales and obvious delusions…would the sage take offense or try to reason with the man? That would get him nowhere and might even make things worse. A better option would be to find the humor in his folly—the silliness of his behavior given what he’s hoping to accomplish, the short-sidedness of his strategy given how the world really works—and laugh with him at the absurdity of his predicament. And as he laughs, the defensiveness melts, and a spirit of kindness wafts through the world. The fool’s small-minded perspective softens, his horizons broaden, and a vision of higher possibility illumines the moment.”

As the Rav reflected on this teaching his heart opened: “Now I understand the laughter of the Maggid when he read that list of sins.”


1 Rabbi Yitzchak Luria (1534-15720, Likutei Torah LeArizal, “Parshaat Ekev” [in the beginning]; Rabbi Yeshaya Halevi Horowitz (1570-1630), Shenei Luchot Habrit (Jerusalem: 1965), Vol 1, p. 249b.

2 See Sarah Yehudit Schneider, Eating as Tikun.

3 Tanya, Chapter 39.

4 Shulchan Aruch w/Mishnah Brurah 695:2 MB5, Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 144:6, Chayei Odom 155:8, Kaf Hachaim sk16.

5 That’s the whole point of Purim masks—they create the space for you to become even more fully yourself.

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1 Comment

  1. Sarah,
    I just want to let you know – this article of yours really made my Purim this year 🙂
    I indeed understood, how Purim in a few short seconds can far surpass the hours of tefilah and holiness of Yom Kippur!

    Thank you so much!

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