One does not need a beverage to access the essence of Purim, much like a celiac does not need challah to experience the holiness of Shabbos. Under what circumstances can one maximize the hallowed minhag of the Jewish people to drink on Purim?
The Kol Bo (45) states that you should only drink if it results in you being more kind, friendly, and sensitive toward others. The Chasam Sofer (1:185) writes that alcohol affects different people in different ways, and therefore you should only drink if you are confident that the alcohol will have the aforementioned effect.
What does the Chasam Sofer mean? If wine just disinhibits people and takes the edge off, wouldn’t it affect everyone similarly?
Alcohol sometimes leads people to raise their voices, fight, and say things they would otherwise regret. But a lot of other times, it doesn’t. The Aztecs called pulque- an alcoholic beverage of central Mexico- “four hundred rabbits” because of the seemingly infinite variety of behaviors it could create. Anthropologist Mac Marshall traveled to Truk and found that, for young men there, drunkenness created aggression and mayhem. But when the islanders reached their mid-thirties, it had the opposite effect.
None of this should make sense. Alcohol is a powerful drug. It breaks down the constraints that hold our behavior in check. That’s why it doesn’t seem surprising that drunkenness is so overwhelmingly linked with violence, car accidents, and sexual assault.
In his book “Talking to Strangers,” Malcolm Gladwell cites a complete rethinking of our understanding of intoxication.
“Many who study alcohol no longer consider it an agent of disinhibition. They think of it as an agent of myopia.
The myopia theory means that alcohol’s principal effect is to narrow our emotional and mental fields of vision. It creates “a state of shortsightedness in which immediate aspects of experience have a disproportionate influence on behavior and emotion.” Alcohol makes the thing in the foreground even more noticeable and the thing in the background less significant. It makes short-term considerations loom large, and more cognitively demanding, longer-term considerations fade away.
Here’s an example. Lots of people drink when they are feeling down because they think it will chase their troubles away. That’s inhibition-thinking: alcohol will unlock a good mood. But that’s plainly not what happens. Sometimes alcohol cheers us up. But at other times, when an anxious person drinks, they just get more anxious. Myopia theory has an answer to that puzzle: it depends on what the anxious, drunk person is doing. If he’s at a football game surrounded by rabid fans, the excitement and drama going on around him will temporarily crowd out his pressing worldly concerns. The game is front and center. His worries are not. But if the same man is in a quiet corner of a bar, drinking alone, he will get more depressed. Now there’s nothing to distract him. Drinking puts you at the mercy of your environment. It crowds out everything except the most immediate experiences.
Here’s another example. Suppose that you are a successful professional comedian. The world thinks you are very funny. You think you are very funny. If you get drunk, you don’t think of yourself as even funnier. There’s no conflict over your hilariousness that alcohol can resolve.
But suppose you think you are very funny and the world generally doesn’t. In fact, whenever you try to entertain a group, a friend pulls you aside the next morning and gently discourages you from ever doing it again. Under normal circumstances, the thought of that awkward conversation with your friend keeps you in check. But when you’re drunk? The alcohol makes the conflict go away. You no longer think about the future corrective feedback regarding your bad jokes. Now it is possible for you to believe that you are actually funny. When you are drunk, your understanding of your true self changes.
This is the crucial implication of drunkenness as myopia. The old disinhibition idea implied that what was revealed when someone got drunk was a kind of stripped-down, distilled version of their sober self, without any of the muddying effects of social nicety and propriety. You got the real you.
But that’s backward. The kinds of conflicts that normally keep our impulses in check are a crucial part of how we form our character. All of us construct our personality by managing the conflict between immediate, near considerations and more complicated, longer-term considerations. That is what it means to be ethical or productive or responsible. The good parent is someone who is willing to temper their own immediate selfish needs (to be left alone, to be allowed to sleep) with longer-term goals (to raise a good child). When alcohol peels away those longer-term constraints on our behavior, it obliterates our true self.”
Why did alcohol become a fixture at Chassidic gatherings such as the Farbrengen and the Friday night Tisch?
Our great-grandparents in the shtetl were primarily laborers, working all week arduously. The daily demands of their lives made socializing and connecting difficult. So on Shabbos, they used the transformative power of alcohol to create the “communal expression” so sorely lacking from Sunday to Friday. Together with their Rebbe, they used the myopia of alcohol to temporarily create a different world for themselves. They drank only within a structure, and the structure of those gatherings was a world of uplifting music and powerful Torah: order, friendship, spirituality, and ritual.
Alcohol isn’t an agent of revelation. It is an agent of transformation.
I believe this is the message of the Chasam Sofer- the effect of alcohol varies, depending on who you are with and where you are. It is the profundity beneath “Mishenichnas Yayin, yatza Sod”. A DJ with mixologist party will hit differently than the local Yeshiva mesibah. Drinking together with aspirational people over a profound sefer at a Farbrengen is not the same as drinking at a hotel bar.
Someone recently asked Rav Ahron Lopiansky if it was reasonable for a bochur in Yeshiva to excessively drink on Purim as an outlet. Adar comes after a long winter zman of learning and personal growth, and a one-day outlet can perhaps be condoned. Rav Ahron responded that even if the bochur needs this as an outlet, he should not do so on Purim!! Why squander a day so latent with spiritual opportunity and potential for holiness? If you will have one drink too many as an “outlet”, do it on a random Thursday, not on the most unique day of the Jewish calendar!