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Purim: When NO Means NO!

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Purim is arguably one of the most favorite Jewish holidays. It is a day to give gifts of food, parading around in clothes or costumes one would never dare wear on any other day, drinking alcoholic beverages, noshing, more drinking, feasting and partying. And of course there is Megillah – twice – to hear how the bad guys tried to kill the good guys – and the good guys triumphed.

But there is a very valuable lesson to be gleaned from the story of Purim that is easy to miss in all the fun and merriment we indulge in as we gleefully celebrate that yet again an enemy’s vile scheme to annihilate us was thwarted and averted.

Purim is not just about standing up to peer pressure, it’s about being true to yourself – upholding your standards in the face of pressure. It’s about saying no – and never wavering from it. It’s about not taking the easy way out and giving in and saying okay.

Our role model in this story is Mordechai. When Haman, who was the king’s right hand man, was out in public, the politically correct thing to do was to bow down to him. And everybody did. I imagine that the majority of the people – both important and ordinary – who complied did not actually want to. I am sure the other court officials and nobility resented having to prostate themselves in front of a pompous, arrogant buffoon like Haman. But they did nonetheless. It was the path of least resistance and why “rock the boat” when all it took was a few lousy seconds to bow down?

Why stand out and get on Haman’s bad side, when all you had to do was bend your knees? Everyone swallowed their pride and avoided bringing negative attention to themselves – as Mordechai did when he remained upstanding (literally and figuratively).

Mordechai simply refused to give in and do what he felt was repugnant for religious reasons, and personal ones (some sources say Haman was Mordechai’s former slave).

Mordechai decided not to take the path of least resistance, one that would have helped him be part of the crowd and not bring the wrath of a very influential and well-connected man down on him. He remained steadfast in being true to his principles.

To put it in sports terms, Mordechai was like the guy at the Yankees home game wearing the Boston Red Sox sweater and hat. (I have read of numerous incidents where fans of the visiting team have been harassed, heckled and even been seriously beaten and injured by fans of the home team). The Jew, Mordechai insisted on showing his true colors!

Mordechai refused to let others convince him to change his mind; he would not be brow-beaten by well-meaning people who were worried about his well-being, and who pleaded with him to just “do it” – to follow the crowd, be one of the guys. Arguably, Mordechai could have rationalized that there was an element of pikuach nefesh, saving oneself from mortal danger, that would give him a legitimate excuse to bow down – but he didn’t take that route. He stood his ground despite the intense pressure to do what everyone else was doing. His integrity was more important to him than “fitting in.”Kupfer-021513-Blocks

Next week, thousands of teenagers and young men will be pressured by their friends and peers, even by baalei batim they go to collect tzedakah from, or possibly rabbeim to drink alcohol – and then drink some more. After all, the point is to get so inebriated that you can’t distinguish between cursing Mordechai and praising Haman. Some of the kids will go along because they want to. Many others however, will do so even though they don’t want to. They will be persuaded to have “one more sip,” good naturedly coerced to have another l’chaim, chided for being a bad sport – and their “no” will unfortunately become a “yes. “

Every Purim, we tragically hear of young people being rushed to the hospital because of alcohol poisoning. These youngsters are found passed out on the floor or on the street. Others so drunk that their sense of balance and judgement are impaired, fall or jump down stairs – or crash their cars.

And it is not just on Purim that men, women and children face pressure to do what goes against their grain. It can be in many facets of everyday life, where individuals are intimidated – often due to misguided good intentions, to take a path they do not want to take.

Young people in the shidduch parsha for example, are repeatedly compelled to date a type of boy or girl who is not what they want, but rather what their parents want.

A young man may want to go to college or a trade school but his parents/rabbeim insist he be a long time learner. I am not saying that parents and mentors should not offer guidance or give advice – young people often are naive or have their heads in the clouds when it comes to what they think they want – but incessant nagging and pressuring is counterproductive when dealing with an individual who has proven him/herself to be a mature, responsible person.

And if he or she has expressed the desire to go in a direction that seems right, and if he or she would be miserable on another path, then respect that wish. And if down the road he or she realizes that a mistake was made – well, mistakes are great teachers. It is one thing to pay the price of your own mistake – it is a whole other level to suffer from a mistake that was imposed on you.

So, for example, if a young man has a brain injury from passing out or crashing on Purim because he chose to drink too much, that is very tragic – but if he was pressured into drinking and he suffers a debilitating injury, that is unforgivable.

Young people – as well as the not so young – can be bulldozed into behaviors or activities they don’t want – especially if it is a “trusted” adult or mentor or close friend insisting they do. The consequences can destroy them.

Mordechai said no. It’s a lesson we all should internalize and make our own.

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