This week’s alumni dvar torah is by Jason Strauss
In preparation for Purim, the Orthodox Union is trying something new to combat substance abuse in the Jewish community during this fan-favorite of holidays. The OU is using an online pledge form, social media, and the hashtag “#purimpledge” to encourage adults to commit (1) not to serve alcohol to minors, (2) not to drink and drive or serve alcohol to those driving, and (3) not to serve alcohol to already intoxicated guests. Like many Jewish organizations, such as Aish and Chabad, the Orthodox Union has begun to respond to the widespread abuse of a statement by Rava in the Talmud that Jews are obligated to drink on Purim until they confuse blessing Mordechai and cursing Haman (BT Megillah 7a). As Rabbi Tzvi Hirsch Weinreb noted in a 2012 article, every Purim, thousands of teenagers find access to and abuse alcohol. Many adults make similarly tragic mistakes, leading to hospitalization due to alcohol over-consumption and car accident injuries. Last year, Rabbi Yair Hoffman even tried to make the case that today it is halachically prohibited to get drunk on Purim.
The Purim Pledge idea to combat substance abuse is based on firm scientific evidence. Since the 1960s, social psychologists have written about the effectiveness of the “foot-in-the-door technique” in preventing self-destructive behavior. A 1993 study by Taylor and Butterfield resulted in statistically significant evidence that signing a petition against drunk-driving increases one’s own likelihood of taking a taxi home from a bar rather than driving while intoxicated. The “foot-in-the-door technique” relies on the idea that actively committing to something, even just verbally, can supply the necessary affective motivation to change your behavior.
The Jewish people used a similar technique to originally commit themselves to the Torah. Rather than wait to hear the commandments, the Jewish people respond to the divine encounter at Sinai with “Na’aseh ve-nishma,” i.e. they agree to commit to G-d’s Torah before they even know its contents (Exodus 24:7; cf. Exodus 19:8). However, not long after making this commitment, while still surrounding the very same mountain, the people fail to maintain their own standard. They build a molten calf made of gold and worship it, seemingly abandoning the relationship they had just begun with G-d (Exodus 32).
G-d’s response to this betrayal is understandably harsh; His first suggested solution to this problem is wiping out the entire people and restarting the nation with Moses as its sole progenitor. In response to Moses’ petition, G-d reduces the punishment but says the He can no longer make His Presence among the people; He was concerned that He would destroy them. His reasoning: the people are an “am keshei oref,” a stiff-necked people, unwilling and unable to change from the pagan and immoral behaviors ingrained in them during slavery in Egypt (Exodus 33:3). Strangely, Moses’ response is not to reject this label; he says that G-d should forgive the people because they are an “am keshei oref.” How can Moses use the prosecution’s argument as the people’s defense (cf. BT Rosh Hashanah 26a)?
Ramban and Ralbag, quoted by Abarbanel (Exodus 34), give similar answers to this question. Although the people’s stiff-neckedness makes it difficult for them to change, that same obstinacy is necessary for the people to do G-d’s will and fulfill their mission as his nation. Moses makes this observation explicit later in the Torah: “it is not for your righteousness that G-d has given you this good land to inherit; [rather, because] you are a stiff-necked nation” (Deuteronomy 9:6). Through thousands of years of persecution, the Jewish people have successfully maintained their tradition. They have had times in which they have made major mistakes and one would have thought that after the first destruction of Israelite society and, certainly, after the second time in 70 CE, there would be nothing left. Yet, time and again, the Jewish people survive. Even after the Holocaust only 70 years ago, not only have we survived, but our stiff-neckedness helped us re-establish the Jewish homeland and gather in much of the exile. Just this week, with our people again facing an existential threat, a Jewish prime minister had the audacity to speak on the greatest stage in the world and compare our fate today to the story of Purim and tell Congress “Never Again!” to thunderous applause.
The megillah itself attests to this tenacity, this “unbreakable bond” that the Jewish people preserve with G-d. Commenting on the words “kimu ve-kiblu ha-Yehudim,” the Jews kept and accepted the details of the holiday of Purim (Esther 9), the Talmud says “kimu mah she-kiblu kevar;” despite their having just barely avoided annihilation, the people recommit themselves to keep the pledge that they had made at Sinai centuries before (BT Shabbat 88a). Each year, we display this commitment by doing what we do best: learning (reading the megillah), giving gifts of food to neighbors and friends (mishloach manot), eating in celebration of G-d’s salvation (mishteh ve-simcha), and opening our wallets and palms to the poor, placing social justice at the center of our moment of bliss (matanot le-evyonim).
Obstinacy can hurt us and make change difficult. At the same time, it is this very potential for commitment that has helped us become a young and thriving nation once again, in the Diaspora and in our homeland. The OU is asking us to use our potential and get our “foot-in-the-door,” to pledge that we will be mindful of the warnings of Rabbeinu Ephraim and the Orchot Chaim regarding heavy drinking and that we keep our children and ourselves safe. May we have a healthy and joyous Purim and recommit ourselves to following in G-d’s ways and celebrate our continued relationship with Him.
Jason Strauss is currently in his last year of Yeshiva University’s rabbinical school, a student at YU’s Bernard Revel Graduate School of Jewish Studies, and a part-time teacher at SAR High School.