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Why we say ‘L’Chaim’ on Purim

FEBRUARY 22, 2018 – I am definitely giddy. The reason? Purim is just about here. On Purim, Jews worldwide sit and hear the Megillah being read, say a L’Chaim, dress up, say a L’Chaim, eat hamentashen, give charity to the poor, give food gifts and say a L’Chaim, have a feast on day two of Purim and say a L’Chaim, dance to the music or without it and of course again … say a L’Chaim.

So that this doesn’t spin out of control now, let me state clearly: I do not advocate drinking. Anyone who struggles with self-control and alcohol abuse cannot and is likely forbidden from imbibing.

There are four primary mitzvot of Purim, and these are nonnegotiable:

Hear the Megillah (both night and day).

Give a food gift with two ready-to-eat items to a friend.

Give charity to at least two needy people.

Have a festive meal!

However, a clause in mitzvah four is that at that feast, one is to “reach the elevated state of being,” which means drink to the point of inebriation where one cannot tell the difference between the good folks, Mordechai and Esther, and the bad folks, Haman and Zeresh.

When one is celebrating a fine cup of wine, it does add to the ambiance. But what is with this mitzvah about drinking?

There are many who, due to discomfort with this mitzvah, substitute the traditional L’Chaim with taking a nap, during which they can no longer tell the difference between the blessed Mordechai and the cursed Haman. There are other interpretations but let me suffice with on old Hassidic aphorism that I was taught as a student and continue to believe today.

It’s simple and obvious, yet brilliant and complex. It goes as follows: “Nichnas yayin, yatza sod.” Loosely translated: “When wine enters, the secrets exit.” In other words, when you drink, your innermost thoughts and feelings are spilled.

For you mystics out there, this may be the key. Wine is often a reference to the secrets of the Torah. It refers to the supernatural, which is above and beyond the scope of what one can see and attain when approaching with basic and natural faculties. Indeed, the Hassidic custom of a “farbrengin” (a groupie sit-in filled with song, stories, insights, and an occasional shot of the heavy stuff) has a L’Chaim involved to loosen the inhibitions and the walls that we have built around ourselves. In the context of a farbrengin, that is good.

Now in the context of a holiday like Purim, one might conjecture, we are being given an opportunity to experience true joy, real supernatural joy. Aside from the unmitigated joy of singing, dancing, and having a jolly old time, costumes and hamentashen, there is also the element of loosening our reservations and inhibitions, so that we can experience life and one another in an absolute way:

To be very present and very true to ourselves and our surroundings. This is true living.  This is deep living. Thus, our saying “L’Chaim” on Purim is not just telling us to be jolly and get out and party, but to say L’Chaim and be jolly and get in. Get into our true zone, our true social, spiritual, and G-dly zone. For ourselves, for our families, and for our world around us.

To quote my colleague, Rabbi Lazer Gurkow, “This transcendent bond is the mystical dimension of drinking wine on Purim. The essence of this holiday is not emotive or intellectual. It is best captured by the soul, not the brain or heart. When wine has dulled the brain, when coherent thought has ceased to function, and the Jew, despite his intoxicated state, remains committed to his religion, he has captured the spirit of Purim.

“In summation, Jews drink wine on Purim to recall the parties of old; to build camaraderie and overcome grudges and jealousies; to emphasize the miraculous salvation which drives away the worries of contemporary challenges; and to experience that uplifting merriment that highlights the essential bond between G-d and the Jewish people.”

Rabbi Nechemia Schusterman is the director of Chabad of Peabody.

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