Until You Don’t Know What?
By Dovid Samuels
One of the most anticipated but strange parts of our Purim celebrations (besides for dressing up) is the obligation to get drunk.
The source for this obligation is in the Talmud where we are instructed to become drunk [with wine] until we no longer can differentiate between ‘accursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordechai’. Apparently, understanding simply, we must get drunk…and very drunk, it seems. The point where you don’t know the difference between Aror Haman and Boruch Mordechai is really quite far; quite a bit more than your four cups at Pesach. But when you analyse the statement carefully, you realise that simply getting drunk cannot be the intention. If the idea was to get (very) drunk, the Talmud should have just told us to get drunk until you don’t know the difference between right and left. Logically, it can’t be that our Sages gave us one day a year [a day to which even Yom Kippur is compared] to lose control and sink into drunkenness; a state where one might easily slip into sinning and damaging oneself or others. Our whole existence is based on not sinning, so surely they wouldn’t ask us to risk it, especially on such a holy day. Instead, the goal of drinking on Purim is very specific: until you don’t know the difference between Aror Haman and Boruch Mordechai. But what exactly does that mean?
What makes it more puzzling is Haman was from the tribe of Amalek. Like no other nation, we are commanded to obliterate the memory of such a tribe. Amalek represents the power fighting against anything holy and pure, leading man to go against the will of Hashem. Mordechai, on the other hand, represents a constant cleaving to Hashem, rooted on holiness. Closeness to Hashem and fighting against the effects of Amalek is a basic premise which we place in front of our eyes all the time. Knowing the difference between them is what makes us succeed in this world; in serving our Creator. If we ever lose sight of the difference between them, between Haman and Mordechai, between holiness and unholiness, between good and bad, we have failed. So on the day where we celebrate and publicise the victory of good over bad, why do the opposite and drink until we cannot see that difference anymore?
After we read the megillah we sing a song called Shoshanas Yaakov, in which we say ‘Accursed be Haman who wanted to destroy me; blessed be Mordechai the Jew. Accursed be Zeresh the wife of my terroriser; blessed be Esther who sacrificed for me.’ In some versions of the song we add in ‘Accursed be all of the wicked; blessed be all of the righteous.’ At first glance, this seems to be a simple request revolving around the incidents at the miracle of Purim. But on closer inspection, something is rather strange. There is a Midrash which tells us that whoever mentions the name of a Tzaddik without blessing him transgresses a commandment; and the same goes for someone who mentions the name of a wicked person and fails to curse him. The source for this obligation is a verse in Proverbs which says ‘The memory of the righteous will be blessed; and the name of the wicked will rot.’ This will be the source for us to use the term zecher tzaddik livracha when mentioning a deceased righteous person, and yimach shemo when we’re talking about a wicked person. If you compare Shoshanas Yaakov, our song of the righteous and their wicked counterparts on Purim, to the verse in Proverbs, you’ll see things in reverse. Our song mentions the wicked before the righteous, and the verse mentions the righteous before the wicked. Our sensibilities would dictate that we should be mentioning the righteous first, not only because the verse has it in that order, but because we know to award the righteous primacy and priority. Why, then, do we switch the order on Purim?
One answer could be that we are saving the best for last. We want to end off on a good note so we first mention the rosho’im and then mention the tzaddikim. It would, however, be unnecessary to deviate from the order of the verse in Proverbs to achieve this, as we anyway end the song with ‘And Charvona should also be remembered for good’. This line refers to Eliyahu the Prophet, as Chazal tell us that he appeared in the guise of Charvona (one of Achashverosh’s advisors) and gave him the advice to hang Haman on the gallows. So, with the mention of Eliyahu, we do end off on a good note, without the need to place the wicked before the righteous in the previous lines. Something about Purim still seems to be a bit backwards.
We know that this world was created to give reward to those who have earned it. Hashem, the Source of all Goodness, wants to bestow that on His creations, and thus we find ourselves in a place of choice: choose good and live to receive eternal reward, choose bad and lose the opportunity to enjoy eternity with death. But when we live our lives longing for the days when righteousness will be raised up above all else and rewarded, and wickedness will fall and lose all of its potency, it’s not so clear which one of those two events is the cause, and which one the effect. Do we see the raising up of the tzaddikim as a result and mere outcome of the obliteration of evil? Or perhaps it’s the other way round, that the raising up of the tzaddikim is primary and as a result causes the obliteration of the rosho’im. Are we longing for the cause or for the effect? Do we want Hashem to crush the wicked in order that the good can elevate, or are we requesting that the power of good be amplified and uplifted in order to push down the evil?
To answer our questions, we have to take a small side-track and look at a famous and fundamental disagreement between the Rambam and the Ramban, two of our most famous medieval commentators. Upon giving us His Torah, Hashem said I am Hashem your G-d. The Rambam lists this as one of our 613 mitzvos, being the command to believe in Hashem as our G-d, and to be faithful to that belief. The Ramban argues and says that the obligation to believe is what allows you to enter into the realm of commandments, but itself is not a commandment, rather a critical fundamental. The depth behind this disagreement is endless, but one of the proofs against the Rambam’s opinion is a clear gemora which asks: What was the mitzvah which was said first? And it answers: Idol worship. Apparently we don’t consider the first statement on the tablets of I am Hashem your G-d to be the first mitzvah. This is a rather startling refutation of the Rambam’s opinion. So how does the Rambam understand that gemora and still say that I am Hashem is a commandment?
Rabbi Chasdai Crescas, a 15th Century philosopher and teacher of Jewish law, answers for the Rambam with an amazing explanation. We are taught in that very same gemora above that the first two statements at Mount Sinai (I am Hashem and You shall not have other gods) were heard by all of the Jews from the mouth of G-d Himself. Rav Chasdai explains that although a human being cannot say two things at once, and one has to choose an order of primacy when saying two things, Hashem certainly isn’t restricted by our human limitations and can say two statements at exactly the same time, as we find in the words Shomor and Zachor in reference to Shabbos, being said in one statement. So too the first two statements at Mount Sinai, I am Hashem and You shall not have other gods, could well have been said in one proclamation. So when the gemora refers to idol worship as being the mitzvah which was said first at Mount Sinai, it is not a proof that I am Hashem is not a mitzvah, as they were both said at the same time.
With this idea, we can answer our Purim anomaly and our obligation to drink. As above, left to us to decide which event takes precedence; the uplifting of the tzaddikim or the downfall of the rosho’im, it’s beyond us to decide. Both have reasons to be considered causes and not mere effects. But if we view the commandment of I am Hashem as being a focus on the side of righteousness and You shall not have other gods as being focused on the cancellation of wickedness, and both statements being said at the same time from the mouth of Hashem, we understand that, for Hashem, neither needs to be a mere result of the other. Rather they can both be simultaneous, primary events. And after a few cups of wine, where we lose our human and logical restrictions that prevent us from being able to see two opposites happening simultaneously, we can see that the uplifting of righteousness can happen, not as an effect of the obliteration of wickedness, and that the obliteration of wickedness can happen without being a result of the raising up of righteousness. After escaping from our logical limitations we can arrive at a place where I am Hashem and You shall not have other gods can exist at exactly the same time, we can realise the truth that the strength of the tzaddikim can be raised at exactly the same time at the downfall of evil; that in the darkness of evil, there can be a bright glow of goodness.
On Purim we are obligated to drink wine until we lose the question of whether we should be placing the curse of the wicked before the blessing of the righteous or not. We sing Shoshanas Yaakov in a different order to the way King Shlomo said it in Proverbs to symbolise that when we get out of our own boundaries and gain a trust that is solely placed in Hashem, neither event needs to have primacy over the other, and everything is possible at once. As Chazal teach us, when Isaiah said ‘From underneath the thorn bush the cypress will come up, and from underneath the nettle the myrtle will come up’ he was referring to Mordechai and Esther (the cypress and the myrtle) rising up from underneath Haman and Vashti (the thorn bush and the nettle). This can be understood the way we have explained above, that at the exact same time, two opposites are happening: righteousness is blossoming from right underneath a tree of evil, and on Purim we have the chance to see this impossible reality, until there is no difference between Aror Haman and Boruch Mordechai.
As was true at the time of the miracle of Purim when the entire Jewish people had vicious swords at their necks, we too live in a dark world where evil and injustice seem to have the upper hand. But the festival of Purim and the correct focus when drinking our wine can free us from our linear outlook, and see that when we live with Hashem, this dark and threatening world can, at the very same time, bring us to light and salvation.
 Bereishis Rabah 49:1
 Horayos 8b
 See Rosh Hashona 27a and the first verse of Lecha Dodi.