Purim, Joy Without Drinking

By Miriam Green, Rabbinic Intern

A couple of weeks ago, in my Facebook feed, I started receiving invitations to Purim parties.  Some highlighted costume themes, others Megillah readings; they all seemed fun, but nothing out of the ordinary – until I came across an invitation from the Backcountry Bayit in Frisco, Colorado, Sensational Sober Purim the invitation read.

Now this was an invitation that stood out from the crowd!  At most Purim celebrations, and most gatherings for Jewish millennials, alcohol seems like a must – it’s part of the fun, the social lubricant that can transform an awkward evening into a night of togetherness and community.

 And on Purim, it’s considered a mitzvah.  After all, aren’t we commanded (Talmud Megillah 7b) to drink until we can’t tell the difference between “blessed is Mordecai” and “cursed is Haman”?
Yet we know that for many young Jews, and for Jews of all ages, alcohol isn’t necessarily fun.  It can make us say things we wish we hadn’t; it can make us do things we wish we didn’t.  Sometimes we feel like we should drink because everyone else is, whether or not we want to, or whether or not we plan to drive later that evening.  For addicts and alcoholics, drinking any amount can be dangerous both mentally and physically.

The Rabbis of the Talmud also recognized that drinking can be dangerous, even on Purim. The Talmud (Megillah 7b) tells the story of Rabba and Rabbi Zeira in a Purim celebration gone wrong:

“Rabba and Rabbi Zeira had a Purim feast together, and they got so drunk that Rabba arose and killed Rabbi Zeira.  The next day, when Rabba sobered up and realized what he had done, Rabba asked God for mercy, and God revived Rabbi Zeira.  The next year, Rabba said to Rabbi Zeira, ‘Let’s feast together again this Purim!’ Rabbi Zeira responded, ‘Miracles are few and far between -I don’t want to feast with you again.’”

Since the time of the Talmud, Jewish tradition has understood that drinking has the power to bring both joy and harm.  While the Talmud does instruct us to drink to intoxication, it tempers this instruction with the story of Rabba and Rabbi Zeira, teaching us through personal narrative that drinking isn’t worth the loss of a friendship or the loss of a life.

So what is Purim really about?  Rabbi Paul Steinberg, in his article Purim: Joy vs. Oblivion, brings a teaching from the Rabbinic commentary Bi’ur Halakhah (695:2):

We are not obligated to become inebriated and degrade ourselves due to our joy [on Purim].  We are not obligated to engage in frivolity or foolishness. Rather we should experience enjoyment, leading to love of God and thankfulness for the miracles God has performed for us.

Purim is not about the intoxication of alcohol; it is about experiencing the type of enjoyment that leads to transcendence.  We don’t need alcohol to get there. In fact, sometimes alcohol can lead us to miss the point.  On Purim we remember a time when the Jewish people faced a devastating attack and miraculously survived.  This year, may we all feel joy and gratitude to simply be alive – and experience each day, with love, as a miracle.