Latest update: February 22nd, 2013
Someone sent me this e-mail: “The ABC’s of Purim: They tried to kill us. We survived. Let’s eat.” When we take a look at the lavish seudah we make each year on Purim, which competes with the grand party of Achashverosh, it would seem that there is some truth to this quip. And when we think about the extremely misunderstood mitzvah of getting drunk on Purim we get even more confused. Why does feasting play such an important role on such a holy day? And then it is not only on Purim. We all remember the loads of food our Bubby would prepare every Shabbos and Yom Tov, and we all try to follow in her footsteps. What is the meaning behind all the feasting in Judaism, and how can we do it properly?
Let us start with Purim. One of the reasons stated (Megillah 12a) for the decree of annihilation was that the Jews enjoyed the seudah of Achashverosh. We must realize that this decree was one of the worst ever to be placed upon our nation. First, Achashverosh ruled the entire civilized world, and therefore all Jews were in danger. Second, the midrash tells us that in Heaven the decree was sealed, albeit in clay, but nonetheless sealed. This meant that we were actually given over to Haman, and if not for our prayers and repentance, there would have been no remembrance of us. What was so bad about this sin that it warranted such a harsh verdict?
Persian Pursuit of Pleasure
The Gemara tells us (Megillah 11a) that the Persian Empire was compared to a bear. The Persians ate and drank like bears and were padded with fat like bears. The commentators explain that this was the foundation of the Persian culture – seize and consume whatever pleasures there are in this world! We can only imagine how difficult it was for the Jews of the Persian Empire to avoid being influenced by this crazy yearning. Mordechai, well aware of this danger, warned the Jews to steer clear of the gluttonous royal banquet in Shushan. Unfortunately, not only did they attend, they actually enjoyed themselves. Thus it was decreed in Heaven that the Jewish Nation would be wiped out. Why?
The Sma’ag writes in his preface that the human being is an extremely peculiar “shidduch.” The body is animalistic in nature while the soul is angelic. Therefore, the body desires animalistic pleasures – eating, drinking, sleeping, and the like – while the soul, on the other hand, is disgusted by such activities. The neshama wants to perform only spiritual activities, trying to get closer to Hashem. So why did Hashem create this “odd couple?” The Sma’ag explains that our job in this world is to elevate materialism to a higher and holier plateau. Thus, both components are needed: the body, to perform the materialistic acts; the soul, to elevate those acts. Not only will the world thus attain its purpose, but the human body itself will also become a more spiritual entity. Yes, we should enjoy this world, as this will elevate it, but only according to the directives of the Torah. Otherwise, every pleasure from which we partake will pull us down, rather than granting us perfection.
Now we can understand the harshness of the decree. By participating in and enjoying the party, the Jews revealed that their deep desire was to immerse themselves in the Persian lifestyle – to please their animalistic side. In other words, they were not interested anymore in fulfilling the task for which they were placed in this world. The punishment, therefore, was not a simple slap on the wrist, but rather the end of our nation and, for that matter, the whole world.
But Hashem, in His great kindness, revealed the decree to Mordechai, who swung into action and motivated the nation to repent. The Jews fasted for three days straight, something we do not find at any other time; this was not just a fast of repentance. Its purpose was to totally cut themselves off from the mistaken lifestyle they had gotten sucked into, and cleanse themselves from the pleasures they had received from it. Similarly, Esther was thrust into a situation of extreme materialism but did not enjoy even one iota of it. She took only what was compulsory, refusing all extra jewelry and cosmetics. She ate only seeds and nuts, and did not partake of the palace’s gourmet food. In fact, the Vilna Gaon explains that all the pleasures surrounding her made her so sick that she turned green! All these actions brought atonement for their sin.
When we were saved, Chazal established a mitzvah to have a splendid seudas Purim – in order to show that we had learned our lesson. Now we eat delicious foods for the sake of Heaven! We savor each morsel as an expression of our gratitude to Hashem for saving us not merely from physical destruction but also from straying away from our purpose in this world. With this we can understand R’ Yisroel Salanter’s zt”l unique explanation of the mitzvah to get drunk. R’ Yisroel would say that we get drunk to test ourselves – to see if we have elevated the body itself from its animalistic leanings. When our minds are fogged, and the body is on its own, does the body express its love for Hashem and His Torah or for something else, chas v’sholom? (Of course, someone who acts improperly when intoxicated should not get drunk, as he will be making the same mistake as the Jews did in Shushan – pursuing worldly pleasures for their own sake. Instead he should just drink a little more than normal.)
Eating for Eternity
In truth, this lesson applies every Shabbos. As we enjoy all the delicious food, it is important to remember that we are doing so for the sake of mitzvas oneg Shabbos – to enjoy Shabbos. (In a future article we will B’ezras Hashem elaborate on the reason for this mitzvah.) By having this in mind, we turn the purely physical act of eating into a spiritual one.
This gives us a better understanding of how Shabbos is “M’ein Olam Haba” – a preview of the World to Come. According to the Ramban, Ramchal, and many others, in Olam Haba we will have our bodies, but they will have been transformed through our efforts in this world into almost completely spiritual entities. Thus, even our physical aspects will be spiritual. So too, when we eat on Shabbos with the proper intentions, we will have entered Olam Haba on a smaller scale, because our physical actions will already have a spiritual nature.
Yes, this is quite a lofty level, but perhaps we can start by saying (or at least thinking) “lekovod Shabbos kodesh – I am doing this in honor of the Holy Shabbos,” before eating a piece of challah at each seudah. Although it may be an empty action at first, over time it will become real to us.
Our great Rabbis tell us that this last exile includes all the characteristics of the three previous ones. It is therefore no surprise that the pursuit of worldly pleasures is something that our society is busy with 24/7, and we must make sure not to get swept up by this craving. By eating properly on Purim, and every Shabbos, hopefully over the rest of the year we will not forget our mission in this world – to follow the dictates of our soul and not our animalistic desires.
About the Author: Rabbi Eliezer M. Niehaus, raised and educated in Los Angeles and subsequently Yeshivas Toras Moshe in Yerushalayim, is the Rosh Kollel of the Zichron Aron Yaakov Kollel in Kiryat Sefer , Israel. He lectures for the public and is the director of the Chasdei Rivka Free Loan Gemach. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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