Purim 5777

The Spice of Purim[1]

מיחייב איניש לבסומי בפוריא עד דלא ידע בין ארור המן לברוך מרדכי
A person is obligated on Purim to get inebriated to the point where they don’t know the difference between “Cursed Haman” and “Blessed Mordechai”[2]

Chazal inform us[3] that משנכנס אדר מרבים בשמחה, when Adar arrives, we increase in joy. For sure on Purim itself we should be joyous, as it’s referred to[4] as a day of משתה ושמחה, partying and joy. One could wonder, how exactly are we supposed to increase in joy? Are we supposed to put a big smile on our faces? Seemingly, it can’t simply be an external joy. It must be something felt internally. How can a person reach a state of true joy during Adar and Purim?

Chazal ask the question[5], where is there a hint to Haman in the Torah? They bring the verse[6] המן העץ אשר צותיך לבלתי אכל ממנו אכלת, Hashem asked Adam if he ate from the one tree he was told not to eat. The phrase “from the tree” has the same letters as the name of Haman, an unusual allusion. What does Haman have to do with the Tree of Knowledge?

A final question, we see many allusions to spices when it comes to the subject of Purim. Chazal say[7] that Mordechai and Esther were named in relation to the sense of smell. Mordechai is seen as an allusion to “the foremost of all spices”, as seen from the verse[8] ואתה קח לך בשמים ראש מר דרור, and you should take the foremost spices. These were known as “מר דרור”, which is translated into Aramaic[9] as מרי דכי, the same letters as Mordechai. Esther’s Hebrew name was really הדסה, which means Myrtle[10]. The above idiom of Chazal that a person is obligated to drink on Purim uses a weird phrase, לבסומי, literally to “spice oneself”. Also, according to Kabalistic teachings, each of the twelve Jewish months correspond to a part of the face. The month of Adar corresponds to the nose[11]. What is the meaning of these connections?

A fundamental principle in Judaism is that it’s incorrect to let your daily situations dictate how you are feeling. A person who is sad or angry shouldn’t think: “If only Hashem would remove all my troubles, then I would feel better”. This is essentially declaring that a person has no control over their emotions. The ideal is that even though a person’s emotions can get pulled in different directions by their situation, things aren’t completely out of their control.  What’s the proof? Many people are in great situations, yet feel miserable, and conversely, many are in horrible situations yet feel great!

We see this life principle in the story of Esther. After Haman was invited to the banquet Esther prepared, he was overjoyed at being included. However, after walking past Mordechai, who continued to not bow before him, Haman was filled with fury. He then proceeds to tell his family all of the great things that he has, yet finishes[12] “all of this is worthless to me so long as I see Mordechai sitting in the King’s gate”. Haman couldn’t see all of his wealth, his power, his prestige; he could only see the one thing he didn’t have. This is why Haman is hinted to with the sin of the Tree of Knowledge. Hashem was telling Adam, that he had access to all of the trees in the world, and he couldn’t resist taking from the only one he couldn’t have[13]?

Consider the following parable: Reuven asks Shimon what is his favorite spice. Shimon responds by saying it is salt. Reuven innocently goes to the store and buys some salt, and begins to eat it. The second it reaches his mouth, he reacts by spitting it out. He proceeds to run to Shimon and ask how he could eat this stuff, it’s disgusting! In truth, Reuven is correct. Spices when eaten on their own are quite unpleasant. The power of spices is that they can take something neutral and bring out its inner flavor into reality.

Just like spices can bring out the inner flavor of food, Mordechai and Esther (the two aforementioned spices) teach us, that we are able to find the good in all aspect of our lives if we only look at things with the proper attitude. When the decree against the Jews was announced, Mordechai was devastated. However, he did not lose hope! He told Esther that even in the event that she wasn’t able to save the Jews, “a salvation will come for the Jews from somewhere else”[14]. He was telling her to have faith in Hashem that He can remove the danger facing the Jews.

Esther agreed with his attitude, and added that all the Jews should fast, only then she would go to Achashverosh and plead for her people[15]. What did she mean? While yes, it’s important to do our part in annulling the decree. However, it’s important to remember, that the whole reason for the decree in the first place was because the Jews took part in Achashverosh’s 180 day feast[16]. Hashem brought about this decree in order to inspire the Jews to have complete repentance.

Through this episode, our ancestors taught us the proper attitudes to life: When a difficulty comes upon us, even though our nature is to complain over what isn’t going right in our lives, we have the ability to see this difficulty as something “neutral”, and to add to it spices. Meaning, we can use this as an opportunity for growth. During the “month of the nose”, we are all able to add to our difficulties the spice of a proper perspective; to strengthen ourselves to find the good hidden within.

Good Shabbos and a Frelichen Purim!

[1] Translated from a Hebrew handout created by a Ner Yisroel talmid, Noach Gruen

[2] Megillah 7b

[3] Taanis 29b

[4] Esther 9:17

[5] Chulin 139b

[6] Genesis 3:11

[7] Megillah 10b

[8] Exodus 30:23

[9] Targum Onkelos ad. loc.

[10] Vayikra Rabbah 30:12 points out that the הדס has a ריח, smell, even though it doesn’t have a טעם, taste

[11] The Bnei Yissaschar Purim § 4 brings this from the Arizal

[12] Esther 5:11-13

[13] See Mishnas Rabbi Aharon I pp. 103

[14] Esther 4:14

[15] Ibid v. 15

[16] Megillah 12a