We are commanded to rejoice on all Jewish festivals, but more than any other day, it is Purim that is distinguished by jubilation. In fact, we start celebrating almost two weeks beforehand, when the month of Adar, in which Purim falls, first comes in.
Another distinction is the nature of celebration that typifies Purim. The Sages of the Talmud teach us that a person should drink wine on Purim. How much? Enough, they explain, so that he will be so confused that he will no longer be able to distinguish between "cursed be Haman" and "blessed be Mordecai."
We don't find a similar ruling - or anything even close to it - in connection with any other Jewish holiday.
This raises several questions:
What is special about Purim? What is the connection between the drama that unfolded in ancient Persia, thousands of years ago, and drinking wine to the point of mental confusion? Why are we commanded to rejoice on this day more than on other festivals? And why in such a manner — so much so that we loose the faculty of distinction between such extreme opposites as Mordecai and Haman?
To answer these questions we must give some thought to the circumstances that prevailed at the time the Purim story took place.
The difficulties which attacked the Jewish nation so long ago began in the royal court of Ahsurerus, commonly identified by historians as Xerxes. With the rise of Haman, a particularly venomous anti-Semite, to a position of influence at court, the Jewish people found themselves threatened. An expert at intrigue and vilification, Haman was quick to present his plot against the Jews before the king.
However, even Ahasuerus, who was known for his anti-Semitism, was not quick to agree. His hesitation arouse not from love of the Jews, or a sense of justice, but out of fear lest he share the fate of so many other enemies of Israel. He was well aware what many others had failed in similar attempts; what was more, their efforts had often brought devastating retribution as a punishment for their malevolent plots against G-d's chosen people.
Haman was not to be put off. He managed to convince his sovereign that this time, it would be different. Their mutual plot would succeed, and with his smooth tongue, he proceeded to explain just why it was so.
Haman argued: "There is one nation … Yeshno am echod…" (Esther 3:8)
Just what did he want to imply with these words?
Our Sages explain that the word "Yeshno" can also be read as "Yashnu − they were sleeping." Haman claimed that the Jewish people had fallen asleep on the job given them by their Creator and Protector, the observance of the Torah's commandments. As a result, this was a golden opportunity to attack them without fear of Heavenly retribution. In any case, G-d was angry with them, he told Ahasuerus. The age-old bond between Israel and their G-d had become weakened, if not severed entirely. It was just the right time to plot against the Jews, because now, heaven would surely not step in to guard them. In fact, as Haman presented it, Heaven was just begging someone to step in and "teach those naughty Jews a lesson."
Thus the crafty minister managed to present his evil plot as though it were a heavenly injunction to harass the wayward Jews.
The fact of the matter is, that in one respect, Haman was right. The truth was that the Jewish community in exile had, indeed, become somewhat lax in their observance of the commandments. He was mistaken, however, in his estimation of how Heaven would react. What he failed to realize was that the bond between G-d and His chosen people was neither temporary, nor was it conditional. True, Heaven might choose to punish misdeeds, but never would G-d abandon the people of Israel for another nation. Nor will He ever allow its enemies to destroy the people of Israel altogether. In other words, genocide is not an option open to the enemies of Israel, try as they might to achieve it.
(Our generation knows only too well to what extent those who seek our destruction will go in their attempts to achieve their goals.)
Haman was no fool, but he saw only part of the picture. True, the observance of the Torah's commandments had slackened, but there was more to the picture. Only the Creator knew what lay in the hearts of His people. As the verse describes it, the people of Israel declare: "I am asleep, but my heart is awake." (Song of Songs, 5:2)
With these words, Israel reveals what is taking place in its inner heart. True, there were unfortunate situations in which it appeared that a moral slumber or apathy had fallen on the nation, as evidenced by its lackadaisical performance in the field of mitzvah observance.
However, this was so far as outer appearances were concerned. Within, the Jewish heart remained awake and aware, as sensitive as ever. Deep inside, each Jew remained loyally bound up with his Creator; there never was any question, Heaven forbid, of abandoning the Guardian of Israel. In the final estimation, this bond was destined to swell to such proportions that it would overcome exterior factors, and would reign supreme.
Our Sages give us an insight into man's inner strengths. They tell us that one cannot always judge a person's inner being by external factors alone. For instance, a father may rebuke a wayward son fiercely, and appear to be so disgusted with his behavior that he no longer loves him.
However, let us imagine that this same father wakes up in the middle of the night and smells smoke. He jumps out of bed to find the house in flames. His first instinct, even if he is still only half awake, will be to rouse the rest of the family, including his wayward son. In fact, he will risk his life to save his son's life, because the instinct of fatherly love is far stronger than his censure of his rebellious offspring's conduct. There is no time for weighing matters, or coming to a decision whether or not the child deserves to be saved.
Under such circumstances, the father is galvanized into action by his subconscious instinct to rescue his child. His fatherly love for his child can never be extinguished from the inner chambers of his heart, even if, intellectually, he concludes that his son deserves to be disowned forever. The impulses of his heart will always be far more deeply seated than any rational decision he may come to concerning his child, even though a person is not always aware of these feelings.
This explains the declaration made by the Jewish people to their G-d: "Even when I am sleepy in my observance of the commandments, my heart is awake and aware of Your mitzvos. The bond between us is still deeply implanted in my inner heart."
In other words, "Judge me not by outward appearances, but by what lies deep within the kernel of my heart, where my loyalty to You is unfettered and undiminished."
Haman saw only what was visible to the untrained eye, and concluded that the bond between Israel and their Maker was dangerously weakened. However in actual fact, that bond remained intact and unshakable; it was the inner content which triumphed over the external factors, and it is this victory of the stronger, inner bond which we celebrate on Purim.
To fully appreciate the significance of the events that led up to the miracle of Haman's downfall, we must concentrate not on the externals, but rather on the inner dimension of these happenings. Deep within their hearts, the people of Israel guard an eternal bond between their Father in Heaven and their nation. When wine has dulled the senses' perception of exterior events to the extent that "he is not able to distinguish between cursed be Haman, and blessed be Mordecai," the dictates of his inner heart take the reins. At this point, the inherent love of G-d that lies in each Jewish heart, comes to the fore, above and beyond the outer consciousness.
The heart of a Jew, in its full spiritual greatness and beauty, is revealed when the barriers to his heart are washed away by the wine of Purim. It is then that he is able to experience heightened awareness of his ties with his Creator and with His Torah and commandments.
It is from this inner bond that the nation's rescue arose, from the bond of the eternal Jewish soul to its Creator, which will last forever.
Each year, on Purim, when we achieve this state of intellectual numbness, or slumber, so that we can no longer distinguish between Haman and Mordecai, we touch the inner workings of our hearts. It is here that we find our primal love of G-d and renew our loyalty to His ways.