By Yochanan Gordon
The month of Adar is synonymous with joy and festivities. And while there is great depth and significance to the joy of Purim, it is the type of holiday where regardless of whether you grasp it cognitively or not, you are inevitably happy.
It reminds me of a joke I once heard of a guy who would confide in his psychiatrist to gain insight and explanation to everything he would experience throughout his life. Once, with the encouragement of his psychiatrist, he took a two-week vacation to Florida, something he hadn’t done for many years. After about a week, his psychiatrist called just to check up on him and see how things were going. The patient said, “I am having such a great time, but I can’t wait to get back so you can explain to me why!”
On a certain level, this describes the scene on Purim. There are droves of people, all beaming with joy and imbibing spirits; some get it and others don’t quite get it, but they have equal rights to express that joy, at least outwardly, because the celebration is ours collectively.
Having said that, there is an important distinction that has to be made here. Mindlessness is an integral part of what Purim is all about. But like everything in life, there are two types of mindlessness—that which transcends the realm of the conscious and that which exists beneath the realm of consciousness. There is an anecdote that involved my great-grandfather and namesake, Reb Yochanan Gordon of Dokshitz and later Crown Heights, that puts this distinction into perspective.
Sadly, Dokshitz, the town where my elter-zaide spent much of his life, was decimated by the Nazis during the war years. The story goes that the Nazis rounded up all the Jews of the town into the central synagogue. They then set it aflame with the entire town and its saintly rav, Reb Aryeh Leib Sheinin, trapped inside to die. My great-grandfather and his family had the good fortune of leaving some years earlier and, as was noted, settled in Crown Heights, where until his passing in August of 1969 he was the gabbai of the Lubavitcher Rebbe at 770 Eastern Parkway.
One Shabbos, on chol ha’moed Sukkos, years after he had already settled in Brooklyn, an old friend of his back from the Dokshitz days entered my elter-zaide’s sukkah. Not knowing he had gotten out of Europe in time, and that he was even still among the living, my great-grandfather was shocked to see his old friend standing in his presence. They sat together and reminisced about the old days in Dokshitz. Their conversation turned to the tragic events which claimed the lives of the rav and all the townspeople. This man reported that the rav had begun singing the Simchas Torah niggun as they were being rounded and trapped within the shul, and, in the final moments, he had recited a berachah with G-d’s name and the recitation of sovereignty, concluding with “al kiddush Hashem.”
This Yid told my great-grandfather that in the aftermath of this massacre, the newspapers were reporting that in his dying moments the Dokshitzer Rav had lost his mind. The Yiddish term for that would be, “Arup fun zenen.” Hearing that description, my elter-zaide shook his head in disapproval, saying, “Nayn, nayn, nayn,” as if to say, they got it all wrong. “Er vet nisht gayn arup fun zenin, uber aroif fun zenin.” He didn’t lose his mind; he transcended the limits of human consciousness.
Purim is about reaching a state beyond human consciousness. And while many people enjoy the process of inebriation, before we engage in it, it is important to understand while sober what the avodah of transcending the limits of human consciousness is all about, so that when we get there it fulfills its intended purpose.
The Gemara discusses the four Tannaim who entered the mystical paradise, and notes that of the four who embarked on that esoteric journey only Rebbe Akiva emerged unscathed. Curiously, the verbiage the Gemara employs there is, “Nichnas b’shalom v’yotzei b’shalom,” that Rebbe Akiva entered complete and emerged complete. The question that is asked is why there was a need to mention that he entered complete; it really should have just noted that he emerged unscathed. The answer given is that the only reason he emerged complete is because he was complete upon entering.
There are many people who spend their time drinking their sorrows away and they don’t haphazardly end up on a spiritual high as a result of it. The avodah of drinking wine and blurring the lines of distinction on Purim has a kavanah that one needs to be mindful of prior to engaging in it in order to actually get there.
Having said all this, I want to dwell on what appears to be a contradiction of sorts. Purim is probably best known for the masquerading and the mitzvah of drinking wine. Interestingly, when one dresses up in a costume or just dons a mask, he is outwardly concealing his identity. However, Chazal famously state, “Nichnas yayin yatzah sod”—when wine enters, secrets emerge. This begs the question: Is Purim about concealing or revealing? It seems that both are at play here, so we need to reconcile this seeming dichotomy.
Arguably, the most famous song in association with Purim comes from a verse in the Megillah, “V’nahafoch hu asher yishlitu haYehudim heimah b’soneihem.” The verse is noting the complete reversal that transpired as the Jews were collectively slated for annihilation, and, almost inconceivably, that reversed course, as Haman was hanged on the gallows that he had erected to hang Mordechai upon. Every word in Torah is precise, so what’s the reason for the seeming superfluity within this verse with the word “heimah?” The verse could have simply stated, “V’nahafoch hu asher yishlitu haYehudim b’soneihem.” Why the need for the word “heimah,” which just means “them,” when it’s clear that we are talking about the Yehudim?
It occurred to me that the word “heimah” has a numerical value of 50. The number 50 is significant in the Megillah because it is equal to the height of the gallows that Haman built to hang Mordechai upon. However, the number 50 is significant in Jewish philosophy and numerology in general as it describes a state of Divine consciousness that no one—even Moshe Rabbeinu—could achieve during his life. Some say that the place of Moshe’s burial, Nevo, is a conjunction of the words “nun bo,” which alludes to the fact that with his demise, Moshe reached the state of Sha’ar HaNun.
But perhaps on a more practical level, the significance of the number 50 and the sefirah of Binah, which in Kabbalah and Chassidus is also referred to as Ima, or mother, is that it’s a state of consciousness where there are no distinctions and we represent the totality of G-d’s people without any hierarchical order. Perhaps the insertion of the word “heimah” within this verse is describing the source from where the Jews’ salvation in the days of Purim emerged, since within the realm of merit and liability, the Jews of that time would not have succeeded in reaching a meritorious judgment. And it is known that the Jews on a unified and collective level are impervious to the effects of sin.
We are all aware of the connection between Purim and Yom Kippur, with Yom Kippur also being referred to as Yom HaKippurim, a day like Purim. I once saw in a sefer that the reason we wear our talleisim throughout the entire Yom Kippur, covering the head most of the time, is because when we stand before G-d in judgment, we want to express the greatest level of unity—and when one’s head is covered by the tallis, the face is obscured and there are no more distinctions between one person and the other. In effect, our masquerading on Purim is for the purpose of blurring any sense of distinction, since our salvation as a people emanated from the Divine state of Binah where there are no distinctions.
Along these lines, a deeper profundity and a newer appreciation emerges to our tradition of covering our faces and the mitzvah of becoming intoxicated on Purim. The two characteristics that distinguish us most from each other are the way we look and the way we think. The Gemara in tractate Berachos famously teaches, “Ein deioseihem shavos, v’ein partzufeihen shavos”—no two people look the same or think in the same terms. Therefore, we cover our faces and we imbibe in order to blur any distinction between one Jew and another regardless of how learned or how sinful he or she is on an individual level.
Exile is tantamount to illness, where our national equilibrium is off-kilter. I saw an insight into the origin of illness as it is manifested at its core in the sefer Ateres Yeshuah from the Rebbe of Dzikov, son of the Imrei Noam of Dzikov. The Rebbe writes that all of creation consists of four elements: fire, wind, water, and dust. When one of those elements dominates the other three, it causes an imbalance in its symbiosis, and that results in an illness of sorts.
Similarly, if we think for a moment about how many systems are at work in the human body, it’s staggering. However, when a person is healthy, he doesn’t feel one system over another; when one faculty becomes conspicuous, then you know it’s time to check it out. The moral is that, ideally, while we are different on an individual level and we all serve a unique and irreplaceable purpose, at the highest level we are supposed to see each other within the totality of our people and not on an individual level.
This leads to another idea of the Dzikover Rebbe, who says that exile essentially is a separation in G-d’s great name, between the first three letters yud-kei-vav and the final hei. On the verse, “And take for Me a terumah,” Rashi famously explains: “For the sake of My name.” The Ateres Yeshuah explains that the purpose of terumah is ultimately to unify G-d’s name and bring an end to galus. An allusion to this is that the numerical value of the words “terumah” and “Havayah” yields “refuah sheleimah.”
In light of all this, it seems that the two traditions of masquerading and drinking, which conceal and reveal simultaneously, are not two distinct actions, but rather a cause and effect. When we conceal those aspects of our lives that distinguish us from each other, we come in touch with our inextricable oneness.
Much of the decree was due to the discord within the Jewish people, as Haman said, “Yeshno am echad mefuzar u’mefurad bein ha’amim, v’daseihem shonos.” It occurred to me that the word “yeshno,” which means “there is,” possesses the same letters as the word “shinui,” pointing to the distinction of one Jew and the next as Haman’s main claim against the Jews.
With the onset of Purim, we should be intent on rectifying that one shortcoming and bringing national healing and an end to our exile—speedily, in our days.