Rabbi Michael Barclay
Purim - A Jewish Path for Addiction Recovery
“All the Festivals will be annulled in future time except for Purim” Midrash Mishlei 9:2
What a seemingly strange comment we find above from the Midrash. Out of all the holidays in the Jewish calendar, according to traditional Jewish belief, Purim is the only one that will be observed after the Messiah comes. Not Shabbat, Passover, or even Yom Kippur. Purim? A holiday where we dress up, get drunk (for adults only), eat triangular pastries, and read the Book of Esther? While it seems counter-intuitive, it is not only true theologically, but the holiday of Purim is the single most powerful ritual in Judaism to heal addictions and obsessive/compulsive/excessive behavior.
To understand the power of the holiday we must look briefly at the practices of the holiday. On Purim we give “mishloach manot” (charity of food and/or money), dress in costume, play with noisemakers called “groggers”, read the Book of Esther and are commanded to get so drunk that we cannot tell the difference between “blessed be Mordecai and cursed be Haman” (Talmud, Megillah 7b). Outrageous behavior is encouraged, and children love the holiday, often equating it to a “Jewish Halloween” where they get to wear costumes. And yes, the answer to addiction is found in these practices when we look closely.
The holiday is based in reading of the biblical Book of Esther (called “Megillat Esther”, the scroll of Esther). Written like a Greek play or story, this is the only book in the Bible that doesn’t mention God. It is a story that takes place entirely in the Diaspora, in Shushan, a city in Persia in the 5th century B.C.E. The king, Ahashuerus (usually identified as Xerxes I or Artaxerxes II) is an alcoholic and has a queen named Vashti whom he commands to “dance” (naked) for his ministers. She refuses and leaves rather than dance. Ahashuerus has a beauty contest to determine his next queen. A Jew named Mordecai encourages his cousin/niece/ward Esther to enter, and she is chosen as the new queen. An evil minister named Haman convinces the king to kill the Jews in the kingdom. Haman determines the date of the slaughter by casting “lots” (Purim), and the date is set. Mordecai instructs Esther to plead for the Jews’ survival; the Jews fast and pray for her success; and ultimately Esther not only saves the Jews but gets the evil Haman and his ten sons killed, and Mordecai becomes the minister to the king. She accomplishes this through using her beauty and acting like she is going to seduce Haman, and then letting the king know that Haman is trying to rape her. After Mordecai is made minister, the king gives him the power to do whatever he wants. Mordecai kills 75,000 enemies of the Jews on the 13th of Adar, and the Jews of Shushan celebrate on the 14th and 15th of the month (the days of the holiday of Purim). A story filled with drama and intrigue, but why would this need to be remembered even in the World to Come?
The secret to understanding this story is found by examining each character in it. The King is a drunk, addicted to alcohol. Haman is a man addicted to acquiring more and more power in every moment. Esther, our heroine, is addicted to using her beauty and sexuality to achieve what she desires, and what is needed for the survival of the Jewish people in Shushan. Even Mordecai ultimately becomes addicted to using his power as a new minister to destroy 75,000 enemies of the Jews (found in Esther 9:16, this verse is often not read by many congregations who don’t want to diminish Mordecai). Each of the main characters in this drama are excessive and get lost in their addictions. And as is the case in all addictions, God is seemingly absent from the story.
Although they rescue the Jews, and we teach especially our children of the heroism of Mordecai and Esther, a deeper reason that this holiday and the story must always exist is as a reminder that even in the World to Come we must be aware and conscious not to become excessive, fanatical, obsessive, or addictive.
This is a powerful teaching, but the holiday and the story also give us the tools as to how to interact with excessive behavior and keep ourselves safe from addiction.
The first teaching that we receive is through the example of Vashti, who refuses to dance naked for the King’s ministers in the beginning. This is an important lesson as to what we must do when confronted with potentially excessive behavior. Vashti teaches us not to negotiate or succumb, but rather to walk away from the entire situation. She is really the example of positive behavior in this story of craziness. She gives up her royal status rather than fall into the trap of excessive behavior. Vashti’s actions are an illustration of what we can do when confronted with a chaos that we know can overwhelm us: walk away. Leave. If everyone else is getting drunk and dancing at a party in Vegas, and you don’t want to get caught up in it and do something that you may regret for the rest of your life, then take the lesson of Vashti. She walked away from her throne rather than succumb to the craziness that she knew would happen if she played the game that the king wanted. By saying no despite the pressure, she becomes a model of behavior that we can use in today's world, and this is one of the reasons that Vashti became a heroine to the feminist movement, being notably glorified by Harriet Beecher Stowe among others. She teaches us not to negotiate with or succumb to excessive behavior (including our own addictions), but to reject the temptation entirely, no matter how difficult. An alcoholic can’t have “just one drink” because of what it will lead to, and we must always fully reject the temptations that could lead to excess.
An additional tool that we learn from the text in how to deal with addiction is to recognize that even though God may be seemingly absent, He is always present. The first step in any 12 step program is to recognize a higher power, and we are reminded of this every year at Purim. By deepening our conscious relationship with God we are able to replace the addiction with spirituality. As my friend Malodoma Some, a Dagara Elder from Burkina Faso once said, “Addiction is an energy that needs to be expressed without the spiritual container, rituals, or community within which to express it”. Observing Purim as a holiday is that spiritual ritual and container.
Another teaching that we learn through this story that helps to combat addiction and excessive behavior is the practice of giving charity. Judaism believes that when we give charity, we open the gates of heaven for Divine help. This holiday reminds us that every time we give charity we are strengthening ourselves and our protection against the Hamans of the world.
So if this holiday is to protect us against excessive and addictive behavior, why do we get drunk? Why do we need to get so drunk that we cannot tell between the blessings of Mordecai and the curses of Haman?
This holiday practice is the epitome of Jungian shadow psychology. For one day a year, in the protection of being part of a spiritual community, we embrace our shadow. We dress up, act crazy with noisemakers, and get excessively drunk. By embracing our shadow for this one day per year, we prevent that shadow from controlling us the other 364 days.
There are many other hidden mystical secrets and teachings found in this holiday, of which I would like to share just a few. Many people if asked would say that Yom Kippur is the most important holiday of the year. But the full name of Yom Kippur is “Yom HaKippurim”. Some of our Sages say not to read it as Yom HaKippurim (“Day of Atonements”), but rather as Yom Ha C’Purim…”The Day that is like Purim”. Yom Kippur and Purim have a deep connection in what they accomplish.
On Yom Kippur we go into the depths of our individual souls, become conscious of any darkness, and heal ourselves through prayer, charity, and repentance. On Purim, we do the same, but on a collective level. All indigenous cultures have a yearly ceremony where they believe they are burning away the evil of the world. Purim is our ritual to do that.
When the Cantor traditionally chants the names of Haman’s ten sons who are killed (9:7), he is to chant it all in one breath. In the middle of his drunkenness and the craziness of the people around him, he is to summon the strength to explode all those names in one long chant. From a mystical perspective, in that one moment the Cantor, with the support and in the protection of the community cleanses all 10 Sephirot (energy centers) for the community and the world.
Another fun bit of wisdom hidden in plain sight is the use of groggers during the reading. A grogger is a mirror image of the Hannukah dreidel. The dreidel has the spoke to spin at the top while the grogger’s spoke is at the bottom. This is a reminder that whereas on Hannukah the miracle came first from Heaven “above”, on Purim the miracle of our survival was a result of the fasting, prayers, and actions that the people of the story did, which opened up the Divine salvation. The grogger itself teaches us that when we act, God responds in kind and will always take care of us.
As is easily seen, the practices of Purim deeply affect each of us an individuals as well as the entire world. It is for this reason that even in the World to Come, this Festival will be an important practice for even then we will need to combat excessiveness, fanaticism, and addictive behavior.
I enjoin everyone to take some time and read the Book of Esther during this holiday. If you are available, I invite you to join in a community reading of Megillat Esther with The Chai Center (founded by Rabbi Shlomo Schwartzie Schwartz z”l and now led by his righteous son, Rabbi Mendel Schwartz) by joining a Zoom reading tonight, Feb. 25 at 8:00pm PST at https://zoom.us/j/4666416991 id# 4666416991. You can download a copy of the Megillat Esther for free at https://www.chaicenter.org/megillah
Whether you can join in the reading tonight, read the Book of Esther privately, or do neither it is important that we all remember the teachings of the holiday: don’t succumb to craziness; find God even when God is seemingly absent; fight excessiveness and addiction with the practices of charity and faith; and always be willing to emulate Vashti and walk away from crazy surroundings.
May we all be blessed in this time to act charitably and with righteousness; to have faith that God will always protect the Jewish people; and to remember that any excessive or addictive behavior is actually a cry from our soul to consciously reconnect with God.
Chag Purim Sameach!
Rabbi Michael Barclay February 25, 2021 13th of Adar, 5781