The Joy of Judaism and Torah

Be as meticulous about being happy in the month of Adar, as you are about grieving in the month of Av * Happiness can be achieved by pondering and appreciating the magnitude of the miracle in the days of Mordechai and Esther * In the times of Achashverosh, Israel had sunk to the lowest of levels; nevertheless, the Jews preferred to die, rather than assimilate * The choice to remain faithful to the Torah confirmed its’ renewed acceptance – this time, out of complete freedom of choice * Purim reveals that every situation and every force has divine destiny * Happiness without giving gifts to the poor is turning a blind eye to, and evading reality; therefore, such joy is incomplete * How to drink properly on Purim

My father and mentor, Rabbi Zalman Baruch Melamed shlita, is used to saying that the times of year when several people ask rabbis questions are for the most part the days before Passover, and next, the days before the beginning of the month of Av, seeing as our Sages said: “When the month of Av enters, we reduce our joy”; consequently, numerous questions arise concerning how to reduce joy in matters of listening to music, taking pleasure trips, public events, purchasing new items, etc. But what about the month of Adar? Aren’t there any questions when the month of Adar enters? After all, our Sages paralleled the two months, saying: “Just as with the beginning of Av rejoicings are curtailed, so with the beginning of Adar rejoicings are increased” (Ta’anit 29a). In other words, just as we are careful about reducing joy when Av enters, we should be just as careful about adding joy in the month of Adar, asking just as many questions as we do when the month of Av begins. Most likely, everyone believes they know how to be happy. Nevertheless, it could be worthwhile delving further into the significance of happiness from a perspective presenting everyday life and reality in the light of joy.

At any rate, it is obvious that part of the mitzvah of increasing happiness is minimizing one’s involvement in distressing things, and attempting to look at the good and joyful side of life. For that reason, I will not remark on the insulting position the Ministry of Defense has taken towards me, and only attempt to be happy over my fortune of “having been apprehended for busying myself with Torah.”

The Difficult Crisis during the Time of Ahchashverosh

During the times of Ahchashverosh, the Jewish nation found itself in dire straits. Since the heyday of the Exodus from Egypt, the giving of the Torah on Mount Sinai, conquering the Land of Israel, and the kingdoms of David and Solomon – for centuries, the nation spiraled downwards. Sins of idolatry, incest, and bloodshed spread throughout Israel. At first, the tribes living on the eastern side of the Jordan River were exiled, then the remaining tribes of the Kingdom of Israel, and finally, the Holy Temple was destroyed and the tribes of Judah, Benjamin and Levi and all those joining them from the other tribes went into exile. Almost no Jews were left in the country. Indeed, the decree of Koresh (Cyrus) had already been declared, allowing the Jews to return to their land, but only a few of them ascended, and as a result of a hateful accusation, they were forbidden to build the Temple. The Persian Empire reigned supreme, and instead of going to Israel, the large Jewish population within the empire endeavored to assimilate amongst the Gentiles and behave like them, to the point where many of the Jews were willing to bow-down to an idol. In the capital of Shushan, Jews participated in a feast given by Ahchashverosh, seeing with their own eyes how the sacred utensils from the Holy Temple, which had been captured by the enemy during the destruction, were now being used profanely; but nevertheless, the Jews enjoyed themselves at the feast of this evil man. It seemed the hope for the return to Zion had vanished, within a few generations the Jewish people would assimilate amongst the Gentiles, and the great vision for which the Jewish nation was chosen would be lost.

The Decree

And then, the wicked Haman, a descendant of Amalek, arose and

instigated the Persian Empire to enact a terrible decree against the Jews, the likes of which had never been seen before: “To destroy, massacre, and exterminate all the Jews, young and old, children and women, on a single day, on the thirteenth day of the twelfth month – that is, the month of Adar – and to plunder their possessions” (Esther 3:13).

It was the first time that the Jews faced such a terrible dilemma: to remain faithful to their identity and Torah with a willingness to pay a heavy price, or assimilate amongst the nations, and be saved from their Jewish fate.

Jewish Identity

And then, the unthinkable happened: Despite the generation’s weakness, the Jews withstood the trials, remained faithful to their identity, and did not assimilate. And God performed a miracle, ‘ve’nafoch hu’ (and vice versa) – rather than the enemies of Israel carrying out their attack, the Jews killed their enemies, and even hung Haman and his sons on the trees that he had prepared for Mordechai. As a result, determination to immigrate to the Land of Israel was aroused among the Jews, we merited building the Second Temple, and a door was opened for the increase of studying the Oral Torah, which was the main spiritual initiative during the Second Temple period.

Since then, the miracle of Purim has served as the model for the life of the Jewish people throughout its’ long years of exile. Our ancestors had thousands of opportunities to assimilate and shed from themselves the heavy burden of anti-Semitism; other nations failed to withstand even simpler ordeals. However, the Jewish nation, despite all the trials and tribulations, choose to continue bearing the word of God and His Torah, out of faith that we had a great destiny – to return to the Land of Israel, and bring redemption to the world.

Receiving the Torah Anew

The events of Purim were so momentous, the Sages stated that Israel accepted the Torah anew at the time of Ahchashverosh. In a certain sense, their renewed commitment at that time was greater than their original acceptance of the Torah on Mount Sinai. When the Torah was first given, Israel was forced to accept it, as it says: “They took their places at the foot of the mountain” (Shemot 19:17). The Sages comment:

“This teaches that the Holy One, blessed be He, overturned the mountain upon them like a cask, and said to them, “If you accept the Torah – good; if not – there shall be your burial.” R. Aĥa b. Yaakov said, “This furnishes a strong protest against the Torah” (since they accepted the Torah under duress, they are not obligated to uphold it). Rava said,

“Even so, they re-accepted it at the time of Ahchashverosh, as it says, ‘The Jews upheld and accepted upon themselves” (Esther 9:27) – that is, they confirmed what they had accepted long before” (Shabbat 88a).

Nevertheless, the question still remained: Would the Jews stay connected to God and His Torah even afterwards, when they become detached from those miracles and wonders? Indeed, there were ups and downs, until the events of Purim took place. That is when it became clear that the people of Israel’s connection to their faith and to the Torah were absolute. The terrible decree made it clear that the price of belief might be unbearable, but the Jews still chose to adhere to their faith, repent, and pray to God, without any coercion. Not only did they return to observe the 613 mitzvot, they even instituted additional mitzvot after they were saved – the mitzvot of Purim. This was the receiving of the Torah anew.

The ‘Segulah‘ of Israel was Revealed on Purim

Thus, on Purim, the ‘segulah‘ (singular quality) of Israel was revealed, that even in the worst situations, they remain connected and faithful to God. This is what our Sages have said, that Jews, even when they sin, are called sons of God. It also became clear that God governs the world and alters events in Israel’s favor in order to save and redeem them.

This is what Purim is all about – taking joy in the sanctity of the Torah, and Israel. By reading of the ‘megillah‘ (scroll of Ester), we engage in Torah, and in the mitzvot of ‘mishteh v’simcha, mishloach manot, v’matanot l’evyonim’ (feasting and joy, sending of portions, and gifts to the poor), we engage in the sanctity of Israel.

The Torah in the Megillah

A wonderful ‘torah’, or teaching, was revealed in the Book of Esther – that even in the depths of darkness, God watches over His nation, and in the end, all the difficult and grave situations turn out to be stages leading towards redemption. In Megillat
Esther, God’s name does not appear. This expresses the darkness and concealment that was present at the time, but that nevertheless, incognito, God governs the world and watches over His nation, guiding and saving them.

Compared to the first stage in which the Torah was revealed with signs and wonders, in the days of Mordechai and Esther the Torah was revealed through physical reality, which at first, seems to conceal the Divine light, but the more devoted and dedicated we are to God, the more physical reality itself reveals its’ divine origin, this being the complete ‘tikun’.

All this is alluded to in the name ‘Megillat Esther’: the word ‘esther‘ stems from the Hebrew word ‘hester‘, or hidden, and ‘megillah‘ stems from the word ‘giluy’, or revealed. ‘Megillat Esther’, therefore, represents the revelation within concealment.

Joy in Food and Drink – ‘Ad d’lo Yada’

Consequently, it was revealed that the physical aspects of life which ostensibly conceal the Divine light, when they are performed ‘l’shem Shamayim’ (for the sake of Heaven), they also are holy. Instead of interfering with the service of Hashem, they are transformed for the better, and are very helpful in serving God with joy and vitality. Even in a certain state of ‘ebude ha’daat’ (loss of knowledge), Jews remain faithful to God. Just as Israel’s faith goes beyond accepted limits, with a devotion difficult to comprehend, so too, the joy of Purim expresses itself in drinking alcoholic beverages “ad d’lo yada’ (until one no longer knows the difference between “blessed be Mordechai” and “cursed be Haman”) – to a level of devotion that goes beyond ordinary, rational considerations.

This is complete happiness, which embraces all of man’s powers, both spiritual and material, to the point where it becomes clear that even drinking and drunkenness, which we generally view as being negative, is transformed for the better, and joins in with the happiness.

And of course, there is no real joy without camaraderie, because real joy is the diversification of life, and its’ extension to the love of others. Therefore, we are commanded to send portions to each other (‘matanot ish l’ray’ahu’), and the feast itself should also be held with friends and family.

‘Matanot L’Evyonim’

One should not be satisfied with increasing love between friends only, but must also take care of the poor who are unable to be happy; therefore, we are commanded to give ‘matanot l’evyonim’ (gifts to the poor), so that they too can participate in the joy of Purim. And anyone who ignores the pain of the poor, even if he thinks he’s having a good time with his friends, in truth, this is nothing but self-indulgency, because, in fact, he is disregarding real life. He escapes thoughts about the sorrows in the world, and only in this way is he able to make himself happy for a while. However, the harsh reality does not disappear while drinking wine and getting drunk; therefore, deep down, he knows he doesn’t really deserve to be happy, and remains sad. But someone who takes care to make the poor and unfortunate happy – his life has value, and he can truly and justifiably rejoice. This is why we are commanded to give gifts to the poor on Purim.

Advice on How to Prevent Drunkenness Ending in Sorrow

Fortunately, we are not used to drinking heavily, therefore, it is important to somewhat familiarize ourselves in the ways of drinking; otherwise, instead of being happy, we will be sorry. In general, alcohol reaches its’ maximum effect only after about thirty minutes. Someone who is not aware of this is liable to drink a glass of wine at the beginning of the meal, and when he realizes that after five minutes the wine has barely had an effect, he feels the need to drink another glass. And then, after another five minutes have passed and he still feels just a little tipsy, it crosses his mind that he should drink another full glass; and after another ten minutes, he begins feeling happy: the wine is taking effect, and if so, why not increase the joy with another glass? And thus, within less than half an hour, he has consumed four glasses, and all of a sudden, the alcohol goes to his head. He still tries to control himself, to talk normally, not to knock over bottles and dishes, but very quickly, he falls dead drunk, reeling in his own vomit. Therefore, it is proper to wait at least a half an hour between drinks; also, along with drinking, it is good to eat something, so that the good wine is absorbed in the body properly. In this way, it is possible to prolong the joy of the mitzvah for several hours.

This article appears in the ‘Besheva’ newspaper, and was translated from Hebrew. Other interesting and informative articles by Rabbi Melamed, including all his highly proclaimed books on Jewish law and thought in Hebrew, and a few in English, can be found at:

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