Gaining Moral and Ethical Clarity Through the Challenges of Drinking on Purim

Throughout many cultures and religions, we find certain days on the calendar commemorated by a certain degree of “escapism.” On these days, actions that typically would be deemed as abnormal are embraced as the norm, often leading to behavior that can approach chaos or even lawlessness. In the greater world, “carnival culture” gives people the opportunity to let loose and act in ways that many would never even think to engage in outside of that setting.

In Jewish tradition, the day which most approaches this escapist idea is Purim. The underlying explanation for why can be found in the Megillat Esther, which highlights the concept of upheaval — or turning reality upside down.

The Megilla itself is very different from any other biblical text. God’s name is never mentioned. An evil decree is launched against the Jewish people — but unlike all the many other times this is recorded in biblical texts, there is no explicit reason given for why this decree was issued. The Megilla extensively discusses issues which, on face value, are not directly related to the story. These oddities, along with other practical and thematic differences, make the Megilla stand alone.

Purim itself is also very different from any other day in the Jewish calendar. There are specific mitzvot that aren’t observed on any other day; specifically, our sages ordained that people should get inebriated to the extent that they are unable to distinguish between Mordechai the righteous and Haman the villain.

Like nearly every action that asks us to stray from our “normal” modes of behavior, this halacha has the ability to be done in a way that brightens our world and those around us, but almost as easily, it can darken that very same world.

Drinking can be done in a way that brightens our world, but almost as easily, it can darken that very same world.

Everyone who has enjoyed alcohol with the purpose of embracing Torah values or to open one’s heart in honest conversation knows that drinking can have a wholly positive and even heavenly purpose. But we also know how Purim can become a truly dark and disturbing day, where children and teenagers become exposed to the evil side of irresponsible drinking, which can lead to complete lack of control and even place people in great danger. Alcohol also has the additional risk of leading a drinker quickly along a path of addiction — a concept that is the more frightening when we’re talking about our children or grandchildren.

We are therefore presented with a real challenge where tradition asks of us to confront an activity that brings with it the potential for danger.

One option is to completely abstain. Stay away from drinking altogether and avoid potentially problematic parties. This is making a strong statement to avoid potential risks. But for many — particularly impressionable teens and young adults — it’s not overly practical, and it’s also not the best way to educate children about the importance of moderation and responsibility. Practically, teenagers will be exposed to these parties and will drink. But more importantly, if we are to completely ban drinking, we are also ignoring one of the basic elements that comes with the holiday.

The second option is to look at this challenge as a real teaching opportunity. Educators and parents should approach this issue by speaking with our students and children with honesty about the dangers that come with drinking, especially on Purim. We should not deny that alcohol can be a positive thing when carefully controlled, allowing us to escape from behind the “mask” we wear the rest of the year. But they need to understand that when it goes uncontrolled, the results can be tragic.

Our message should be that when we act responsibly but still remain in control, drinking can even be a blessed thing. The goal is to successfully instill within the next generation that we view our approach to this holiday as challenging but one that we can accept with the proper steps in place.

From both the educational and ethical perspectives, this is an appropriate lesson for Purim — and one which is applicable at all other times. Young people need to appreciate that there are many inherent dangers in our world, in both what we do and with whom we interact. But life gives us tools and capabilities to encounter those potential dangers and use them in a way that can be positive rather than destructive. To bring light rather than darkness and, indeed, to make us better and stronger people.

This is a key message and one that needs to be approached with patience and sensitivity. But if it is conveyed effectively and properly internalized, we can be confident that we are educating our children to be better prepared and equipped to make the difficult moral, ethical and practical decisions that lie ahead.


Rabbi Yuval Cherlow is the Director of Tzohars Center for Jewish Ethics.

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