For those who live with addiction or substance dependency, there are occasions that test one’s commitment to sobriety. The greatest gift we can give is to dispense with any expectation of inebriation as a mitzvah or an obligation.
The translation of Purim is usually “The Festival of Lots.” Perhaps “The Feast of Fate” is a better translation. It is name refers to the casting of old school “dice.” So as fate or luck would have it, on the full moon in the early spring month of Adar, Jews are compelled to take a serious break — to step outside of time and place into the unending drama of intolerance and intrigue, naming and blaming, challenging of power and gender, and yes, the threat of genocide. Human drama at its best and worst. Ahh, the tale of Esther.
So how do we approach an obvious parody of power, pride and even genocide that is enshrined in the Book of Esther? The sages instruct us to read the story, to give tzedakah, to send edible gifts to our friends and to “tie one on.” At least, one should drink more than usual. Say what?
The Talmud teaches that we should attain a state of mind wherein we can’t distinguish between Haman and Mordechai (Megillah 7b). Honestly, you have to be pretty buzzed not to recognize the difference between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker! Definitely above .08 Blood Alcohol Concentration and unfit to drive.
In college, I thought this was awesome. I used to quote the line from the Talmud to friends as we prepared for Purim. What I did not realize in my youthful bliss is that the same Talmudic passage continues with the story of Rabbah and R. Zeira.
The two sages got together on Purim and apparently partied intensely. Rabbah got so out of control that he seriously injured R. Zeira during the night. So much so that when Rabbah “came to” in the morning, R. Zeira was near death. Realizing what he had done, Rabbah prayed for R. Zeira’s recovery, and he was revived. The following year, Rabbah wanted to make up for the year before and invited R. Zeira to join him for a Purim feast. Zeira declined, saying, “You can’t expect a miracle every time.”
Jewish law wisely adopted the moral of this story and guided Jews to moderate. Drink a little more than usual. Drink until you are sleepy — because then you won’t be able to differentiate between Darth and Luke. You don’t need to turn green like Yoda.
Most commentators refer to wine as the intoxicant in question. The fates of Vashti and Esther were determined with wine. Haman’s fate was determined at a royal meal. Rashi says that this is indeed about becoming drunk with wine. Fun fact: Rashi was an accomplished winemaker 1,000 years ago. Conflict of interest?
What have we gleaned from all of these centuries of Jewish experience? What about someone who struggles with alcohol? Should they take a once-a-year “green light”? A free pass? Not a chance.
I am privileged to be one of many Jews who is in daily recovery. (I always say that everyone is in recovery from something!) As one who has struggled with alcohol, I understand the valid concern that Purim may be a dangerous space — a slippery slope — for someone in recovery. But that’s not how it really works. It’s not slippery. It is binary. Darth and Luke. Clean or Sober. Life and Death. One drink is too many.
If shots are being poured, most folks who imbibe can observe this commandment with two or three during a Megillah reading. They can cop a buzz for the holiday. Kol hakavod! Those who are able to celebrate in this way are to be praised. The use of wine and spirits in sacred, though even everyday life should be respected and disciplined. Jewish tradition is rich with warnings around alcohol abuse, not alcohol use. We are taught that drinking early in the day is one of those behaviors that “drive a person from this world” (Avot 3:14).
Frankly, Jews who have done even a bit of recovery work will be quick to identify a “wild and crazy Megillah reading” as a potential trigger or unsafe space. That doesn’t mean that you can’t attend! Frivolity does not require intoxication. The reading of the Megillah is far more important than getting twisted. This festival is about survival! It celebrates human agency in history. Folks in recovery are hyper-aware of such challenges. Valid choices are made in advance. You can plan ahead. You can bring your own Martinelli’s and a friend in recovery. You can or decide not to attend at all.
Here’s the deal. The celebration of Purim requires the rediscovery of an evolved past and an evolving new set of norms. It starts with the commentary that “you really don’t have to get drunk—just get sleepy.” And later, Jewish guides specifically address those for whom getting drunk would lead away from a proper path of behavior. In such a case, one should not drink at all.
In my 30 years in the rabbinate, I’ve seen new attitudes, norms and behaviors emerging. More and more, communities are recognizing that there must be beverages of all types at Jewish observances. This is not a difficult move. It provides the opportunity to be truly inclusive for all members of a community. It should not be “red or white.” Sparkling cider is not difficult to provide.
For some of us who have lived with and through addiction or substance dependency, there are occasions that might test someone’s commitment to sobriety. The greatest gift we can give to one another is to dispense with any expectation of inebriation as a mitzvah or an obligation. True joy, simkhah, needs no enhancement.
Respect autonomy. Keep yourself and those around you safe from harm, and also discover the joy and laughter present in our current predicament. As the Talmud says, “When the month of Adar arrives we need to enhance our joy” (Ta’anit 29a).
P.S. Folks contemplating experimentation with any mind-altering substances should only do so with the support of a kind, committed and dedicated friend/guide who is knowledgeable about the substance and its effects, and who is able to be present throughout the endeavor. The commandment of piku’akh nefesh — preserving life — supercedes all other commandments.
 Prepare to be amused by this Yiddish folk song: “Rebbe Elimelech of Gilhofen drank le’hayyim once too often. … At your Purim celebration, use a little moderation or you’ll end up with a gragger for a head.”
Rabbi Gary Ellison is a graduate of RRC (’90). He currently works as a spiritual counselor for Willamette Valley Hospice. He previously served as a university chaplain and was rabbi of Reconstructing Judaism affiliate Temple Beth Sholom in Salem, Ore., for 11 years. A Pacific Northwest native, he enjoys the outdoors and music in all its shapes and forms. Hazzanut (liturgical music) and composing new melodies for worship are passions. Gary is committed to the hard work of recovery each and every day.