Yes, Jews drink. This comes as a surprise to some, and not so much to others. True, traditionally speaking, we’re not big drinkers. We have a lot of ceremonial occasions where alcohol, wine specifically is a key part of the observance. We have the weekly Sabbath, where we say Kiddush (the blessing over the wine) at the Friday night meal, the Saturday lunch and then again Saturday night to conclude the observance. Our wedding ceremonies have seven blessings that are said over a cup of wine, at the ceremony itself and then every night for seven nights following. Wine in the Jewish religion is important, and is on a different level, in it’s making and drinking, then any other spirit. But “big drinking”? Drinking to excess and getting drunk? Again, traditionally, not a very popular activity in the Jewish world (Yes, I know that there are Jewish alcoholics, and I am not referring to them in this discussion, though it is a very real problem. There is a wonderful organization based here in Toronto called JACS, that works to help those suffering from alcoholism and addiction, and their families. For more information, please click on this link to be brought to their website).
There is a big exception to this rule though. The holiday of Purim. Jews in general, observant ones specifically, tend to be a pious, spiritual body of people. They spend their days in the observance of G-d’s laws and commandments, and strive to fulfill them to the best of their ability. Alcohol, for the sake of becoming imbibed, directly takes away from that practice. How can you learn, study and teach if you can’t walk in a straight line? In fact, part of Noah’s downfall after the flood, which led to his shame and the cursing of his son and grandson, is as of the direct result of drinking too much wine (read more about that here).
So why is Purim different? Part of the celebration during the holiday is to drink to excess, to achieve a state in which one can no longer differentiate between the villain Haman and the hero Mordechai. I looked around for different sources and explanations (ie: Google Search), and I came across and interesting article on the Chabad website. It stated that by becoming incapciated it is as if we are saying: “Even if we can no longer differentiate between things whose differences should be abundantly clear, we still know that we shall not lack salvation, that our hopes are not fruitless and that our joy is not unbased, for in G-d alone do we place our trust. Whether sober or inebriated, we fear no evil, for You are with us forever.”
It is easy to mark the differences between a “cursed is Haman” and a “blessed is Mordechai”. They are polar opposites on the scale of righteousness. However, what is harder is to learn to recognize the minute intermediate stages between these two extremes. Can you tell the differences between someone who is “mostly good” or “mostly evil”? At what point does the scale tip?
If one has consumed enough on Purim that these stages are no longer clear, then he is considered to have fulfilled his obligation, but there are different ways to find righteousness in this world. Is it through the merits and victory of the good? Or just the downfall of the evil? Is it enough that our enemies perish, or should we elevate ourselves as well?
When the Jewish People act meritoriously, the righteous are exalted and it is their praise that is expressed; all are happy and the joy is complete. But when we lack merit, and our salvation is realized through the downfall of the wicked who are excessively evil, the entire world trembles in fear of G-d, but there is no joy. Thus, the happiness of “blessed is Mordechai” – of the Jewish People being saved through their own merits – is greater than “cursed is Haman” – the salvation that comes when the wicked have been destroyed.Nevertheless, the Sages ruled that on Purim one is required to drink until he reaches the point where he can no longer differentiate between these two types of salvation. Why? Because the downfall of Haman is completely different from the downfall of other wicked people. The joy that results from his defeat is as complete as that which results from the victory of the righteous. Haman is a descendant of Amalek, of whom the verse states: “And in the destruction of the wicked there is song (Proverbs, 11:10)”. When Amalek is obliterated, it is as if there is a revelation of the Spirit of G-d in the world and it is therefore fitting that we celebrate.
Thus, there is no difference between the joy associated with “cursed is Haman” and that associated with “blessed is Mordechai.” So that man might not be distressed that he has merited salvation because of the excessive evil of the wicked rather than through his own merit, our Sages ordained that he drink and forget the difference between these two sources of salvation.