Rabbi Arieh Berlin

Were a stranger to witness a Purim without any explanations, he would surely come away with many questions. Fancy dress, drunkenness - aren't these things that we would normally look down upon? How can we explain behaviour that seems to be the opposite of any form of respectability? In order to understand why, in fact, we dress up and drink wine, we have to first understand the story of the Megilla.

The entire yeshua (salvation) took place behind the scenes; there were no open miracles. When examined individually, each episode in the Megilla seems to be a completely natural event. In fact, some episodes could have occurred in any royal court of that era. A new king celebrates his rise to power with a lavish feast; the queen slights him and is killed for her crime; two of the chamberlains plot to kill the king but they are discovered and are killed. Were these not fairly common occurrences in monarchies of old? However, if we continue to follow the events of Megillas Esther, they cannot be explained as anything other than a Heavenly plan designed to bring about the salvation of the Jewish people. With careful study, one can see the Divine Providence in each event.

Vashti is removed and the road is paved for a new queen. Out of all the thousands of candidates for this position, Esther is chosen. Bigsan and Seresh discuss their plot to kill Achashevorsh precisely at the time that Mordechai was nearby and could overhear. Instead of being immediately rewarded for reporting the traitors, Mordechai's reward was saved for a time when Achashverosh could not sleep, and Haman would come to ask him for Mordechai to be hanged. This resulted in Haman leading Mordechai around the streets dressed in royal clothing. Should this not have been enough to destroy Haman? How did he survive being disgraced by leading his greatest enemy in such honour? Hashem kept Haman going until he was finally unmasked by Esther at her second feast, causing him to be hanged on the same gallows that he had intended to use for Mordechai.

These constant miracles behind the scenes are also hinted to by the fact that Hashem's name is not mentioned in the Megilla. As we see from above, though, His presence is very clear.

A simple explanation as to why we dress up on Purim then, is that Hashem was hiding behind the scenes, and all the plans that Haman had plotted against the Jews were turned on him. If we take the idea of Hashem hiding behind the scenes, we can apply it differently.

The Gemara(1) brings down a dialogue between Rav Shimon Bar Yochai and his disciples. They asked him why Bnei Yisrael deserved such a threat from Haman, and he answered by asking them what they thought the reason was. They said that it was because they benefited from the feast of Achashveirosh.

Rav Shimon questioned this. If that was the case, why wasn't the decree against the Jews of Shushan only? Rav Shimon answered his own question by stating that when Nevuchadnetzar demanded that everyone bow down to the idol or else be killed, the only Jews to defy the decree were Chanania Mishael and Azariah. In return, a decree came about to kill the entire Jewish nation a few generations later.

"Why, then, was the Jewish nation spared if that was the reason for Haman's decree," challenged Rav Shimon's disciples. "We bowed down so we should have been punished accordingly." Rav Shimon explained that although we bowed down outwardly, we actually believed in Hashem. We bowed down only to spare our lives. In return, Hashem brought a decree that appeared to hold no hope of being revoked. In the end, though, we realised that Hashem was there the whole time and the threat was only lepanim (on the surface).

The idea of outwardly acting one way and inwardly acting another is something that is, unfortunately, applicable to us all. Many times, we do things that we know are incorrect, yet our evil inclination takes over. Even if we do not know something is wrong, ignorance is not an excuse. However, deep inside each and every one of us, there is the will and desire to do what is right and to do the will of Hashem.

On Purim, when Hashem unmasked the truth and showed us how there could be such an outward threat, yet we were saved, we dress up as if to say that whatever mistakes Hashem sees in us, He should only look at them as "make-believe." Deep down, we only want to do His will.

There is a parable of a man who was travelling on a journey that took a few days. Each night he would stay at an inn and leave early the next morning. One night, he came to an inn and asked if there was a room for him, but he was told the inn was full up. He begged and explained to the innkeeper that he had nowhere else to go. The innkeeper remembered that he had a soldier lodging there who was on duty at night and slept during the day. He offered the man his bed if he promised to be up and out early in the morning, so that the soldier could come back from duty and go to sleep. The man gladly agreed and the innkeeper showed him the room with a promise of an early morning wake-up call. Early the next morning, when it was still dark outside, the man rushed out of the inn, taking the soldier's clothes instead of his own. As he arrived at the station, he caught a glimpse of himself in the mirror and muttered to himself, "what a silly innkeeper, he woke up the soldier and not me!"

Often, we forget who we really are and what our real purpose is. We look at ourselves on a superficial level only. In other words, we wear our fancy dress costumes the whole year. On Purim, when we have an opportunity to dress up and show what we look like in fancy dress, we hope that Hashem looks at our aveiros (sins) as only a mask, and that He sees the real 'us' behind them.

The idea of ignoring external actions and looking at what really lies behind it is not foreign to us. For example, the Rambam paskens (rules)(2) that in a case where Beis Din force a person to give his wife a Get (divorce), even though we know he doesn't want to give it, it is still a valid Get since it is only the yetzer hara and deep down, he wants to do what is correct.

However, dressing up alone would not actually do anything for us - since we are trying to show Hashem that any wrong doings are only lepanim, and that deep down our ratzon (will) is to do the will of Hashem. As well as dressing up, Chazal gave us the mitzva of drinking. Through drinking, we can bring out the 'real me'(3).

There are two reasons for one to drink: either to forget (to drown his sorrows); or to remember. "A Jew associates spirits with spirituality." Throughout the year we have a constant reminder of how wine is used as a source of remembering. Every Shabbos, we remember the creation of the universe by making kiddush over wine. On Pesach, when we remember the exodus from Egypt, we again use wine.

On Purim, when revealing who we really are, we remember (through wine) where our responsibilities lie(4). The Gemara(5) uses the phrase of 'nichnas yayin yotzeh sod - when wine enters a person his true self comes out.' (Yayin has the same numerical value as sod - 70).

If we drink for the correct reason, we can bring some of the hidden parts of ourselves a little closer to the surface. However, there is still one question that has not been addressed: why is there a mitzva to drink so much?

The Gemara(6) brings down the phrase 'chayav inish livesumei.ad delo yoda bein arur Haman l'baruch Mordechai - a man is obliged to drink until he does not know the difference between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai.' Why do we need such a loss of mental clarity? If we just want to reveal the 'real me' then we would only need to drink a small amount.

Rav Eliyahu Kitov zt'l, gives the following insight: the Jewish people's salvation at the time of Mordechai and Esther was not merely a temporary one. We say in Shoshanas Yaakov (the phrase said after reading the Megilla) 'teshuosam hayisa lanetzach vesikvasam bechol dor vador - You were their salvation unto eternity and their hope in every generation.'

Until that time, had Bnei Yisrael (chas vesholom) sinned enough without doing teshuva, they would have been doomed to total destruction. In that generation, the Jewish people did indeed deserve destruction for their many aveiros. When, however, they did teshuva wholeheartedly, the Divine Mercy was forthcoming to them and they were able to have a yeshua. At that hour, the Midas Harachamim (attribute of Divine Mercy) came before Hashem and pleaded. Even though the yeshua was given through the merits of Mordechai and Esther, there was no guarantee that future generations would have such merits. At that point, Hashem widened the yeshua to an eternal one for all generations.

We demonstrate through our way of rejoicing that we do not rely on our own merits, but only on Hashem's rachamim. It is for this reason that we eat and drink on this day 'ad delo yoda.' It is as if we are saying that our yeshua does not rest with us, for we do not know the difference between our right and our left.

This may also be understood on a spiritual level. We are saying to Hashem that even if we no longer know anything of Your ways externally - we don't know how to distinguish between such extremes as Mordechai and Haman - nevertheless, we do believe in You and we do not despair of salvation.

We see from these insights that the reason we dress up and drink wine on Purim is an opportunity for us to realise our true responsibilities. We are asking Hashem not to look at our aveiros as the real us. Deep down, we only want to do what is right and we constantly await Hashem's salvation.


1 Megilla 12a. 2 Hil. Geirushin 2:20. 3 However, the Mishna Berura states that if by drinking, a person knows that he will not be particular with brachos or bentching, he should not get drunk. 4 The Biur Halacha, 695 s.v. chayav inush gives another explanation why we drink on Purim. Vashti was removed and Esther became queen because of the wine that Achashveirosh had at the feast, while the whole downfall of Haman happened through the meal he partook of with Achashveirosh and Esther. 5 Eruvin 65a 6 Megilla 7b

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