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Purim & Recovery

Dear Rabbi,

You are well acquainted with my recovery from alcohol addiction and how this journey brought me back to my Jewish heritage.

Due to my previous limited understanding, I always saw Purim as a Jewish version of Halloween. My recent Jewish learning, however, has now given me much more understanding and appreciation of this Jewish holiday, its historical significance and meaning for us as Jews today. 

But as a recovering alcoholic there is just one detail I cannot comprehend. How can Jews be encouraged to consume alcohol in excess on Purim to the point where one “cannot differentiate between cursed is Haman and blessed is Mordechai”[1]?

Firstly, the dangers of alcohol are well known. How can there be an endorsement of such extreme levels of intoxication where one cannot discern between the most basic distinctions? Secondly, how can I, a recovering alcoholic, fulfil this obligation? There must be more to this mitzvah!

Dear ______,
As always your questions are good ones. 
As this issue affects your road to recovery, I first must say that many halachic authorities maintain that these words from the Talmud are not meant to be taken literally.  We are not meant to get totally trashed on this holiday. Rather we should say a l’chaim and rejoice in G-d’s salvation and kindness. The mitzvah only applies if one’s behavior remains at the high standard expected by the Torah.
But your questions still stand. What’s the point of making alcohol, even if only a small amount, a part of Purim and does this preclude your participation?
In Chassidic thought there is an inherent connection between Purim and saying l’chaim.
Many of the Jews of Shushan were far from involved in Jewishness. They were deeply integrated into Persian society and its way of life. Yet when Achashverosh’s decree of annihilation hung over their heads, something unparalleled in Jewish history happened. Every Jew’s soul was aroused to the point that a fast day was declared and all cried out for G-d’s help.
We have no accounts of the Jews of Shushan reneging on their Jewish identity to escape their death. Haman chose the Jews because they were ‘different’, so it would have made sense for the Jews to prove to Haman that they were ‘good Persians’ just like him.  Instead every Jew on his or her own volition put complete trust in G-d and turned to prayer and repentance.
After 70 years in exile, when the Jews had felt abandoned by G-d, this was an astonishing, illogical act, an extreme self-sacrifice for G-d’s name that defied reason.
Jewish holidays ultimately are not historical commemorations, but rather are spiritually meaningful.  Purim is really not about dressing up or drinking, but about rekindling our relationship with G-d, something that outweighs any threat, even one of annihilation.
However sometimes we feel stuck and uninspired when this connection with the Almighty is not tangible. So we make a l’chaim. Not to escape, nor to avoid responsibility, nor to drown our sorrows, but to strip away some of our coarseness and self-consciousness, in order to feel deeper involvement with our soul and its sublime relationship with G-d. The l’chaim lowers our guard and decreases our inhibitions and allows us to experience the awe-inspiring things we are often too reserved to appreciate.
There is a very specific and virtuous goal to drinking on Purim. It’s not about losing yourself, but about getting closer to your self. This is the dedicated Jew’s ambition.   
So what about your situation where alcohol is poisonous?   I know our sages would never encourage life threatening activity and therefore you are completely exempt from this mitzvah.
Yes, exempt from this mitzvah on the day of Purim, but you and I know that in fact you celebrate Purim every day.
Some people can only let G-d in when they are under the influence of chemicals to take Him deeper within. But every second of your life, you let G-d in by being free from substances and their effects. That ‘Purim – Jew – G-d – relationship’ is your everyday reality. Your recovery is fueled by humility, acceptance, faith and trust. Your life is Purim all year round. You vividly see G-d’s hand directing your life and it is this very recognition that keeps you alive. 
This Purim, when you won’t be drinking alcohol, you will be performing the greatest possible mitzvah.   
And always remember you have four other mitzvot to delight in on that day. To hear the Megillah, to give gifts to two poor people and a food package to a friend and to sit down to a Purim feast[2].
Have a heartfelt and joyous Purim, my friend. I so look forward to sharing a sumptuous meal with you and our fellow Jews.

[1] Talmud Tractate Megillah 7B  
[2] “Better that a person should increase his gifts to the poor on Purim than to expand his Purim feast and gifts of food to his friends. For there is no greater and more beautiful celebration than to make happy the poor, the orphan, the widow and the immigrant. One who rejoices the hearts of these sorrowful people is similar to the Divine Presence, as the prophet says (Isaiah 57:15), ‘To revive the spirit of the downtrodden and to revive the heart of the oppressed’.” Maimonides, Laws of Purim (2:17)

The “Inner Peace” Myth

For a 2 minute audio click here 

People have always wondered what are the forces and objectives that drive humanity

Jewish philosophy teaches that there is no one answer. Rather, two distinct and opposing agendas, which derive from two different modes of consciousness, are what drive us.

It is human nature to be inconsistent. Our desires can be contradictory. At times we seek base and materialistic pleasure, at other times we yearn for meaning and spirituality. Chassidic philosophy explains that this dichotomy is a result of the ongoing inner battle between our G-dly soul and our animal soul, each fighting for supremacy and control. 

The particulars of this struggle are unique to each individual. Our G-dly soul, which is the source of all that is good within us, strives for sanctity and transcendence, looking to use all our resources and talents in the interest of developing a relationship with G‑d and to help our fellows.

Our animal soul, however, fights to drag us down into mundane depths in order to fulfill its selfish desires. It is governed by instinct and impulse. The results of the animal drive range from basic self-centeredness, all the way to self-destructive action. Like competing wrestlers, one drive may be in control at one moment, the other drive in control the next.

In life, many look to attain inner peace and serenity. But when tranquility remains elusive, they feel deprived. This may lead to potentially destructive distractions and escapes - unfortunately even through the medium of artificial stimulants - to avoid inner tension.

In our lifetime on earth, inner peace is not a given. But our goal should be that the force of all that is good within us gains mastery over the animalistic. While the struggle may continue our entire lives, we must constantly be involved with good, plugging in deeper into our G-dly souls.

Of Comfort and Challenge

 For an under 2 minute audio click here 

The Talmud says: “Wherever the term “ויהי” and it was, is mentioned in scripture, it is an expression of pain” i.e. it introduces a painful narrative.

This idea can be applied to life as well. When we are very much preoccupied with thoughts of the past, discerning nothing good in the present and not anticipating the potential of the future, that is a sign of anguish. 

Jewish festivals - which often may seem like mere historical commemorations - are all in some way spiritually tied to the future. While Pesach begins by recalling the exodus from Egypt, the second half of the seder talks of our ultimate redemption and concludes with the declaration “Next year in Jerusalem”. Shavuot, to take another example, ostensibly commemorates the giving of the Torah to our ancestors on Sinai. Yet at its essence lies our commitment to keep the Torah into the future. Our rejoicing is not a preoccupation with the past, but lies in the vision of a glorious future. And although the future seems uncertain (thus posing challenges), it still generates joy because it holds the promise and potential of what may be.

From the past we may take comfort, but the future promises excitement. 

When we face new challenges, we are able to rise above mediocrity. Challenges prompt our very best efforts and the use of our abilities to their full extent. Challenges can spark journeys deep into our souls to discover what we are truly capable of.

The past is over. The anticipation and enticing realisation of what remains to be done far outweigh dusty memories, no matter how pleasant.

The Unavoidable and the Optional

For an under 2 minute audio click here 

Some teach that a virtuous life is where one never is angry. Others suggest one should express their anger freely, for pent up anger can have serious negative emotional effects on a person. 

Both these approaches are extreme and a healthy medium is what we should persue. There is a difference between feeling and reacting. Feeling is unavoidable. Reacting is optional and reacting is a choice. With a clearheaded judgment one can decide the most sensible way to react with the best possible results. Without this judgment, anger turns into rage, which has no benefits and it only causes destruction.

Taking control of our reactions consist of training ourselves to exercise restraint when we are provoked, even if we feel that we are in the right. 

Practice restraint by:

Giving it some time

Pausing for time and not acting immediately on one’s anger firstly allows the anger to die away. When anger first explodes, it appears to be a raging fire that cannot be stopped. But doesn’t the biggest conflagration eventually burn out?

Secondly, pausing gives us time to regain control and operate with a rational and clear mind.

Responding in a soft voice

Rage feeds upon itself. Our own tone of voice can dictate the things we may say or do in that particular moment. A soft voice in response to rage is like depriving a fire of its oxygen.

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