Why did the Sages enjoin us to become inebriated on Purim?
The Talmud in Megillah 12a states that the near-annihilation of the Jews in the time of Ahasuerus was a punishment for participating in the royal banquet, where they prostrated themselves before Persian idols. What led them to this act of disloyalty?
The Jews of that time believed that the root cause of anti-Semitism was due to a xenophobic hatred of their distinct culture and religion. In fact, this was Haman’s explanation for seeking to destroy them:
“There is a certain people scattered and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of your kingdom. Their laws are different from those of every people; neither do they keep the king’s laws.” (Esther 3:8)
In order to overcome this hatred, the Jews felt that it would be prudent to adopt the customs and ways of their idolatrous neighbors. They demonstrated their allegiance as loyal Persian subjects by attending the royal banquet and bowing down to the Persian idols.
To their consternation, the Jews soon discovered that their efforts were futile. They were shocked to learn of Haman’s plot to annihilate them, despite their best attempts at integrating into the local culture.
With the realization that assimilation is not the answer, and that their only true protection is God’s providence, the Jews reaffirmed their commitment to keep the Torah and its mitzvot. This is the meaning of the verse, “They confirmed and accepted upon themselves” (Esther 9:27) — “they confirmed what they had accepted long before” at Mount Sinai (Shabbat 88a).
The Talmud teaches that their renewed commitment to Torah complemented and completed the original acceptance of Torah at Sinai. What was missing at Sinai? The dramatic revelation at Mount Sinai contained an element of coercion. Alone and helpless in the wilderness, the Israelites were hardly in a position to refuse. The Midrash portrays this limited free choice with God’s threat to bury them beneath the mountain had they refused to accept the Torah. In the time of Ahasuerus, however, they voluntarily accepted the Torah in a spirit of pure free will, thus completing the original acceptance of Torah at Sinai.
This appears to be the explanation for the unusual rabbinic requirement to become inebriated on Purim (Megillah 7b). It is ordinarily forbidden to become drunk, since without the intellect to guide us, our uncontrolled desires may lead us to improper and unbecoming behavior.
But on Purim, the entire Jewish nation was blessed with an outpouring of good will to accept the Torah. On this special day, we find within ourselves a sincere yearning to embrace the Torah and its teachings. For this reason, we demonstrate on Purim that even when intoxicated we do not stray from the path of Torah, since we are naturally predisposed to goodness and closeness to God. Even in a drunken state, we are confident that we will not be shamed or humiliated by the exposure of our innermost desires. As we say in the Shoshanat Ya’akov prayer on Purim:
“To make known that all who place their hope in You will not be shamed, and all who take refuge in You will never be humiliated.”
(Silver from the Land of Israel. Adapted from Olat Re’iyah vol. I, p. 441)