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.