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D'var Torah by Yisrael Kaplan

Freedom and Obligation on Purim

Yisrael Kaplan (Cohort 7) was a middle-school teacher for three years at the Emery/Weiner School in Houston, Texas, before making aliyah. He now works for Nefesh b'Nefesh in Israel.

The apparent obligation to drink on Purim "until one doesn't know..." troubles me year after year. Of course, several of Chaza"l themselves seem equally troubled by this instruction. Why did our hachamim obligate us to get drunk on Purim?

The megilah opens with the feasts of King Achashverosh in the third year of his rule. This is significant, according to several commentators, because at this time his kingship was solidified (see Rash"i and others). Having consolidated his rulership over a hundred twenty seven provinces, the king makes a feast for his officers, and then another for all the people of the capital of Shushan. Where at this point I would have expected the king to show his power by announcing powerful decrees to unify the kingdom, Achashverosh takes a different approach:

"And the drinking was according to the law, there was no coercion, for so the king had established for every officer of his house to do according to each man's pleasure." (Esther 1:8, trans. Artscroll)

According to Rash"i, at some meals there was a "drinking minimum" – one was served a large cup of wine and obligated to drink all of it, even if it was difficult for him. Here, Achashverosh declared: the rule is, there is no rule; everyone will choose for himself how much or how little he wants to drink.

Why did Achashverosh choose this approach? Maybe it was another way of fully solidifying his kingdom: drawing his subjects near by welcoming them openly, without restrictions or obligations. In this kingdom, they would be free to choose what they wanted.

However in a world without obligation, something else is lost. A sense of obligation – toward good – gives us direction, purpose and identity. Unrelated to the particular circumstance of drinking, perhaps Chaza"l saw these values in danger. The meal, they taught, was attended on Shabbat and served on the utensils of the holy Temple! (Esther Rabbah)  It was truly a meal in exile and a meal of exile.  Perhaps this teaches that without a notion of obligation, our values, memories and vision are also jeopardized. Therefore, in that very place, the rabbis stood up and decreed: There is a rule; we are obligated.

But this is still troubling. Why here??  Why make this statement through the return to an act of becoming drunk??

This rule is not carried out in the same way as in the feasts of old. From amid the controversy inherent in this rabbinic obligation comes an array of practical understandings of it: While some poskim understand it to entail drinking a lot (safely!), others emphasize that drinking relatively little – enough to fall asleep – fulfills the obligation fully and appropriately. What emerges is a range of approaches, in which important concerns are addressed, while the sense of obligation is nevertheless preserved - and fulfilled.  This is a real "v'nahafoch hu" from Achashverosh's approach that allowing for choice means giving up on obligation – according to Chaza"l, we can develop a feeling of responsibility toward our tradition and remain a part of it, and still find our own path within it. We don't have to choose between the two.

Throughout Jewish law, the range of interpretations is not infinite. It makes room, however, for the individual and includes multiple possibilities while challenging us to develop a sense of obligation and responsibility toward our tradition and our identity.

In class as well, we want to give students freedom, draw them in and create a fun learning experience. But a classroom with no expectations or rules is destructive.  And we know the truth: Students don't want that either.  It may be fun at first – but students are serious people, and they want to be challenged.  They also want to feel cared for.  Providing structure and expectations in our classrooms gives students both senses of challenge and security.

May we always strive, together with our students, to find ourselves in the Torah we learn. Purim Sameach!