When we consider Purim, we are struck by a seeming contradiction in the holiday. The common perception of Purim is a holiday of joy, manifested by partying, exchanging of gifts, wearing costumes and excessive drinking (unless you happen to be in the Midrasha, of course). One could therefore be forgiven if, in reply to the question of what holiday we would consider to be the epitome of simcha, joy, the answer would be Purim.
This perception, however, is difficult to reconcile with the accepted practice of aveilut, or mourning. We are familiar with the the halacha which states that the simcha associated with the various festivals, as opposed to Shabbat, is so strong that it nullifies the practice of aveilut. The Rambam codifies this halacha in the tenth perek of Hilchot Avelut, where he meticulously details how the practices of shiva and shloshim are impacted by the celebration of a festival which falls during this period. The nullification includes not only the Shloshet Regalim, but extends to Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur as well. Conspicuously missing from the list is Purim. Surely, if Purim is the apex of Simcha one would expect to find it listed as a festival that nullifies the strictures of aveilut! (It should be noted here that the question of the impact of Purim on aveilut is the subject of disagreement amongst the Poskim. Our practice is to treat it like Shabbat, namely, that the mourner displays no public signs of mourning. The aveilus, however, continues uninterrupted. See Shulchan Aruch Orach Chaim 697:4). Hence how are we to understand the simcha associated with Purim?
If we contrast the Rambam in Hilchot Megilla (2:16) with the Rambam in Hilchot Yom Tov (6:17-20) another peculiarity arises. When describing the obligation of feasting on Purim, the Rambam is very clear that a person is obligated to drink until he is inebriated and falls asleep from his drink (again unless you are at the Midrasha). In discussing the parallel obligation of feasting on Yom Tov, the Rambam is equally adamant that a person not celebrate the simcha of Yom Tov by feasting exclusively, but by splitting our day between eating, prayer and study. More to the point, the Rambam admonishes us not to mistakenly equate drunken celebration, which is simply frivolity, or worse, with simcha, which is a form of Avodat Hashem. How, then, can we reconcile these two views of simcha.
The answer, it would appear, is in our choice of the phrase simcha, and its applicability to Purim. In all of Hilchot Megilla the Rambam uses the word simcha just once, in saying that Purim is to be a Yom Simcha (2:14). Otherwise, there is no mention of simcha when speaking of Purim, and certainly no suggestion that there is a mitzva of simcha on Purim. Contrast this with the four halachot in Hilchot Yom Tov that we referred to above. In those few lines alone, the Rambam refers to simcha no less than ten times, when describing the mitzva of simcha on Yom Tov. It is therefore clear that the concept of Simcha is very different when we are speaking of Purim and when we are speaking of Yom Tov.
The Rov, Rabbi Yosef Soloveitchik zt”l, once explained the difference as follows. The celebrations of Purim are very public, very wild, and very tenuous. They are the celebrations of a people who are unsure of their position, who recognize that their present salvation can as quickly turn to persecution as it did to freedom. This is a theme throughout the Megilla. We see it in the hester panim that is suggested by the lack of a single explicit mention of God’s name. We see it in the clearly mercurial nature of Achashverosh, and Esther and Mordechai’s success in exploiting it. And most clearly, we see it in the ultimately secondary position Mordechai and the rest of the Jewish people find themselves in at the end of the story. After all, Mordechai might be the chief vizier, but Achashverosh is still the king. And one only need to ask Haman about the job security of that position.
An individual, or a community, which finds itself in that position does not celebrate out of true, unalloyed joy. There is no mitzva here, just a grasping at a “yom simcha”, an attempt to deny the tenuous nature of one’s position through forced frivolity, and yes, by drowning one’s problems in drink. The downside is that when you awake, your problems are still there, and you have a hangover to boot. This might be the idea that Rava, when explaining why we do not say Hallel on Purim (see Gemara Megilla 14a) is trying to convey. Rava explains that unlike Yeziat Mitzrayim, where the outcome was that the Jews were servants to God alone, the Purim story ends with the continued subjugation of the Jews to Achashverosh’s rule. Therefore, it is inappropriate to recite Hallel on Purim, as the miracle was, at best, incomplete. The gains of the moment could easily be reversed, and with disastrous consequences.
The contrast to the mitzva of simcha on Yom Tov could not be starker. On Yom Tov, the obligation of simcha is an outgrowth of a state of mind, not an attempt to impose a sense of happiness by behaving with abandon. The actions that we take on yom tov to fulfill the mitzva of simcha are expressions of the simcha that we feel when celebrating the relationship with God that the Regalim, (and Rosh HaShana and Yom Kippur!) symbolize. If we stop and consider it, there can be no other explanation. What, in the end, is contradictory between the mitzvot of Simchat Yom Tov and mourning? A new dress? A fancy meal? A glass of wine? The true contradiction is in one’s state of mind. The joy that we are to feel on Yom Tov is simply incompatible with the mindset of a mourner. The specific actions are not the mitzva itself; they are merely manifestations of the simcha we feel. And this communal joy leaves no room for the personal anguish of the individual, as painful as it might be. So the mourner is commanded to overcome his pain and sorrow in favor of his place within the community.
The difference between drinking on Yom Tov and drinking on Purim is now clear. On Yom Tov we drink moderately, as a way of emphasizing our joy. On Purim we drink until we are drunk as a skunk (as Rav Shames would say. Note that we are not drunk like a rat). To get drunk on Yom Tov would detract from our true simcha, our recognition of our relationship with Hashem. By allowing our behavior to be sullied by drink, we would make a mockery of the simcha we are supposedly celebrating. On Purim, on the other hand, we drink precisely because we feel no internal joy, experience no sense of inner bliss. We are trying to create, rather than to express a sense of joy. And that is only temporary.
Our goal, then, is to transcend the “madness” of the Purim celebration, and to reach true simcha, a simcha which instead of being forced from outside, radiates from within.