Purim, Alcohol and the Messages We Send: A Call for Consistency

It’s hard to believe but Purim is just around the corner. In less than two weeks, Jews all over the world will gather and celebrate a day endowed with meaning and infused with joy.  Purim provides adults and children with the opportunity to connect with God and with each other in a remarkable way, offering an experience which can be impactful and, at times, transcendent.  Many enjoy cherished memories of Purim celebrations which inspired sustained periods of growth and elevation.

One of the unique features of a traditional Purim celebration is the excessive consumption of wine. Although there is a Talmudic basis for this practice, many rabbinic scholars have established limits and set specific parameters, in an effort to dissuade individuals from becoming intoxicated.  Among the great rabbinic authorities who have advocated such an approach, are Nimukei Yosef (Megillah 7a), Rama (O”C 695:2), Chayei Adam (155:30) and Aruch Hashulchan (O”C 695:3-5).  It is not my intent to offer my own view regarding the halachic definitions and parameters of alcohol consumption on Purim. It would be presumptuous (and irrelevant to most) for me to express an opinion regarding this matter. Our rabbis have presented a remarkably wide spectrum of views, all a matter of public record.

For full disclosure, it has never been my personal practice to become overly intoxicated at a Purim seudah.  Yet, for my entire adult life, I enjoyed the practice of drinking considerably more wine than I did on any other day throughout the year (which, admittedly, is not all that much).  Our personal Purim seudos have always been especially celebratory and festive, reflecting deep and genuine expressions of religious emotion and joy. I will not deny that these experiences were sharply enhanced by the impact of our collective alcohol consumption.

For the past several years, however, I have consciously limited my alcohol consumption on Purim to no more than a single token drink.  This deliberate choice was proudly broadcast to the other participants, most of whom chose to follow this lead. What initiated this sudden change of practice? What precipitated such a significant departure from our customary Purim experience?

Truthfully, I cannot point to a particular event which motivated this change. It was not a reaction to a specific experience, nor a developing crisis in my life. My personal decision to abstain from alcohol on Purim is driven by a desire to communicate clear and consistent messages to myself, my family, and anyone else who may happen to be paying attention.  As a father, as a rabbi and as a teacher, I find it increasingly more challenging to effectively promote intolerance towards excessive alcohol consumption throughout the year, while simultaneously tolerating such indulgences on Purim.  For many, particularly among our youth, the perceived disparity between these two messages is both glaring and compelling.  Our commitment to teaching the value of self-control and our continued efforts to promote intolerance for drugs and alcohol are not merely obstructed by this apparent behavioral contradiction; they are entirely compromised.  To be clear, I do not have the slightest temptation to dismiss or revise Talmudic texts, nor do I intend to imply any grievance with our sacred traditions. On the other hand, Purim does not exist in a vacuum.  With the setting of the sun and the cleansing of our bloodstreams, our religious obligations, social challenges, and personal struggles all resurface and are they right where we left them before the festivities began.  Is it realistic to assume that we can effectively communicate and inspire the virtues of self-control, while faced with conflicting messages that are, for the most part, too nuanced to reconcile?

Additionally, it is no secret that many in our community suffer, directly or indirectly, from the devastating effects of alcohol abuse.  While many of us are able to enjoy the harmlessly benign effects of alcohol consumption one day a year, others among us suffer from the torment and misery of alcohol abuse every day of their lives.  How do we, as individuals and as a community, indulge so excessively, while simultaneously protecting and supporting those among us who may be painfully triggered by our actions? Is it even possible to participate in planned and organized intoxication without provoking sadness, pain, or grief among those most vulnerable and afflicted?   

I offer these questions without presuming to have all of the answers. For myself, the decision to celebrate a dry Purim seems most appropriate and responsible, given my current surroundings and circumstances.  Of course, I will continue to cherish the memories of past Purim celebrations, powerfully enhanced by the alcohol accompaniments.  I will not attempt to forget nor revise the inspiring memories and impressions that were created by rebbeim who radiated joy and transcendence, while under the simultaneous influence of alcohol and Torah.  For now, though, I pray that my children, students, and peers can discover meaning and find inspiration in other opportunities that the day of Purim offers.  We may, in fact, miss the alcohol-induced joy of Purim.  Regardless, we’ve got bigger issues to deal with at the moment.

On Substance Abuse, Parenting Doesn’t End With Open Dialogue

children-must-be-supervised-sign-k-0214I applaud The Jewish Link for addressing the issue of substance and alcohol abuse in the yeshiva community, one of both profound and critical importance. As the article and editorial correctly indicate, sticking our heads in the sand and pretending that this is not an issue of great concern in our community, is naïve at best, reckless and immoral at worst. Indeed, awareness and education, for both parents and teenagers, is an essential measure, if we are to address this problem comprehensively and responsibly. I agree as well that open communication, honest discussion and ongoing dialogue between parents and teenagers, are indispensable tools that must be fully employed throughout this process.

It does seem to me, however, that there is an important component that was absent from your editorial coverage. While parents must work to arm their children with the skills to protect themselves and explain the devastating effects of alcohol abuse and drug use, the role of a parent does not end there. Many of the situations in which our teenagers find themselves in-over-their-heads are facilitated by the parents themselves, albeit unwittingly. Often times, due to our passive compliance, our teenagers find themselves in situations where the temptations and pressures competing for their attention are simply too powerful and overwhelm their under-developed prefrontal cortexes. It is not necessarily education and information which our teenagers lack, nor is it even a lack of motivation on their part. They simply do not have the psychophysiological wherewithal to safely manage and navigate these situations on their own. When (if) we sit down with our children and discuss the dangers of drugs and alcohol, it is very possible that they are listening, tuned in and processing. But, in no way whatsoever, does not mean that they possess the cognitive or emotional ability to make responsible choices in every setting.

To be frank, it is shocking and deeply disappointing how permissive many parents are when parenting the teenage yeshiva community.  Parents often worry that establishing clear expectations and setting appropriate limits, will possibly create a wedge between them and their children, thereby compromising and obstructing the lines of communication. Parents do all they can to avoid saying “no” to a child, out of a deep-seated fear that setting limits will trigger rebellious tendencies. This fear is amplified when teenagers challenge their parents with the proverbial “but everyone else’s parents allow it.” (Recently, a parent actually issued the same rationalization to me!) These concerns are, for the most part, unfounded and often reflect the parent’s own insecurities.

I fully recognize that we cannot, nor should we, attempt to monitor our teenagers’ every move. It is important for teenagers to develop as self-sufficient adults, which necessitates both poor decision-making and failures, as indispensable prerequisites for healthy development. At the same time, it is nothing less than criminal for parents to allow teenagers to participate in unsupervised gatherings/events/parties/reunions etc. etc., turning a blind eye to the real and present dangers that they will undoubtedly encounter.  It is simply unfair and arguably cruel for us to expect our teenagers to be able to withstand the lure of a drink, a puff or a hit, when surrounded by unsupervised peers.

It would seem to me that the most substantial measure that we can take as a community is to reclaim our role as parents. This is not the time, nor the forum, to establish what the non-negotiable, forbidden lines should be. Yet, if we can, at the very least, commit to working together as a community of parents, we can greatly mitigate the imagined fallout that we often dread, when acting as lone individuals. Our teenagers will not only respect us for insisting upon their physical and emotional safety, they will greatly admire us for our sensible and decisive intervention. Most importantly, through responsible parenting, our teenagers will experience a deep and profound sense of inner peace and security, which will ultimately allow them to achieve the greatest high imaginable.