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Drinking Doubt Away

Eytan Kobre

Meaning is indispensable for generating happiness

Wednesday, March 20, 2019

P

urim may be over by the time you read this, but it’s not too late to recall the story about a shikker in Krakow who’d begin his heavier-than-usual Purim-time drinking on the first of Adar. When asked about this minhag of his, he’d explain, “Haman harasha really wanted the annihilation of the Jews to extend throughout the month of Adar. He only agreed to limit the slaughter to one day, the 14th of Adar, in order to hedge his bets. In case the Jews found a way to avert the decree, Haman reasoned, their celebration of his downfall would be a one-day affair rather than a monthlong one. Haman was willing to do anything to stop Jews from rejoicing, even if it meant limiting his own evil designs to one short day.”

And, taking another swig from his bottle, he concluded, “Well, I’ll show him. There’s no way that rasha merusha Haman’s going to stop me from celebrating all month long….”

Far be it from me to want to deny a Jew the chance to have the last quaff at the expense of that shlemiel from Shushan. And perhaps, despite having offered his explanation while in a state called ad d’lo yada (known as the 51st state, beyond the 50 of binah, it requires no liquor license), perhaps our Poilisher friend actually knew more than we think.

Why, indeed, would it terrify Haman for Jews to spend a full month in happy celebration? The Gemara (Taanis 29a) cites a teaching of Rav Yehudah, son of Rav Shmuel bar Shilas, in the name of Rav: Just as we start minimizing our joy with the advent of Av, so do we commence increasing our joy from the beginning of Adar. Who was this Rav Yehudah? According to one reading of the Gemara (Sanhedrin 96b), it is to his father, Shmuel bar Shilas, that Chazal refer when they state that a “descendant of Haman learned Torah in Bnei Brak.”

Chazal caution us to take care not to disparage a non-Jew in the presence of a descendant of converts, since there’s a part of him that, even many generations later, still feels a kinship with non-Jews. And perhaps in a similar vein, Rav Yehudah sought to eradicate every last vestige of his ancestry (what might in Yiddish be called his amolegeh Amalekeit) by teaching Klal Yisrael for all time about a prime means for rooting out Amalek, which is through simchah.

When it comes to Purim, joy is more than just a response to our miraculous salvation; it is itself the deliverance. The very sight of a joyous Jew on Purim and in the days leading up to it embodies the downfall of not just Amalek, but of Amalekism. Jewish jubilation is the triumph of our way of seeing the world over theirs.

Unlike other Yamim Tovim, where the mitzvah of simchah is a response to the day and is thus limited in duration to it, the experience of simchah on Purim is the very essence of how we counteract — or counterattack — Amalek. And since Haman chose a month, Adar, and only then a specific day within it on which to do us in, we dedicate its entirety to an ascending proliferation of joy. In keeping with Purim’s theme of v’nahafoch hu, we turn Haman’s own weapon of choice back upon him.

What is it about happiness that drives Amalek to distraction? Amalek stands for only one thing — nothing. It is a nation maniacally committed to a world devoid of meaning. Yet meaning is indispensable for generating happiness.

As that apostle of purposeful living, the psychologist Viktor Frankl, wrote: “It is a characteristic of the American culture that, again and again, one is commanded and ordered to ‘be happy.’ But happiness cannot be pursued; it must ensue. One must have a reason to ‘be happy.’ ” And by far, the most powerful of those “reasons to be happy” is the inner fulfillment that a meaningful life affords.

Maharal writes repeatedly that simchah springs from sheleimus, and a sense of meaning is the missing piece that completes the human puzzle. The feeling that what one does really matters can make a life whole like nothing else can.

While imprisoned in Auschwitz, that laboratory for the study of life at its barest, Frankl observed firsthand the powerful truth he later developed into the psychological theory he called logotherapy: That a person can survive while stripped of every supposed life need, except for a sense of meaning. Without that, he’s a dead man walking.

Having created for himself a world of utter randomness through which humans float purposelessly, the Amalekite resigns himself to an existence of unrelieved psychic suffering. And as a result, he is haunted, as H.L. Mencken said of Puritans, by the “fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy” — but especially Jews, who earned Amalek’s undying enmity due to their view of life as shot through with the deepest meaning and hence, happiness.

But to prevent others from finding meaning and achieving true happiness, Amalek doesn’t have to get others to adopt his own nihilism. That nation knows only too well the truth of the Jewish saying Ein simchah k’hataras hasfeikos — there is no joy that can compare to that produced by the resolution of doubts, and so it seeks only to undermine verities of any sort, even of idolatry. It is the certitude of a cause to which one is committed that gives life meaning, and even an evil cause can provide a form of illusory meaning.

Amalek chooses instead to simply provoke doubt, to replace the certainty of emunah with the kind of self-questioning that wracked Bnei Yisrael just before Amalek first pounced: “Is Hashem within our midst or not?” But Purim is the time of ultimate clarity, of rising above the rational level where doubts can fester, to the supra-rational level at which the deep connection of the neshamah to its Source prevails.

A strange thing happens when the subject in Torah is Amalek — suddenly, doubts proliferate. There are doubts about whether certain cities should read the Megillah on the 14th or 15th of Adar; about the correct pronunciation of the word being zeicher or zecher (or perhaps zachar — see Bava Basra 21b); and about which day Moshe chose for Yehoshua to do battle with Amalek (see Yoma 52b).

Haman considered Adar an auspicious month because it contained the day of Moshe Rabbeinu’s petirah, in the wake of which no less than 3,000 halachos were thrown into doubt (Temurah 16a). And it ought not to surprise either, then, that when Chazal (Chullin 139b) find an allusion to Haman in the Torah, it is in the episode of the sin of the Eitz Hadaas, which brought Adam Harishon down from a state of pristine moral clarity, with good and evil starkly delineated, into an internal haziness in which bechirah became a matter of choosing among infinite moral gradations.

But as is always the case, Amalek’s efforts to undermine and destroy us boomerang against them. We turn the tables, resolving every one of those doubts in such a way that we have more Torah, more readings of the Megillah, more mitzvos to do.

And finally, on Purim we imbibe to the point of ad d’lo yada. Yediah connotes a particular type of knowledge, arising not from mere cognition but from intimate connection. The Eitz Hadaas Tov v’Ra is so called because, as Adam learned to his great consternation, partaking of it brought an irreversible connection, a mingling of good and evil in the heart of man — the very moral haziness of which we spoke earlier.

But Purim is a time of “lo” yada. It is when we hark back to the very earliest moments of Creation, when there was no yediah intertwining between tov and ra, when truth and falsehood were so clearly at odds and doubt had not yet made its appearance on the world stage.

And in this, Purim is a harbinger, too, of the fast-approaching era of Acharis Hayamim, a time of which the Torah foretells that v’achariso adei oveid (Bamidbar 24:20), Amalek will be obliterated with finality. And with its demise, the world of doubt it worked so hard to propagate will also give way, and in its place a brilliant clarity will prevail and all the world will know that truth of truths: Ein od Milvado.

Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 753. Eytan Kobre may be contacted directly at kobre@mishpacha.com

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